Oklahoma teacher resigns over Matthew Shepard play

Posted on 24 Mar 2009 at 12:10am
By Associated Press

School officials stopped project after complaints from local minister

GRANDFIELD, Okla. — A dispute between a teacher and school officials in Oklahoma over a class project on the murder of a gay college student in Wyoming led to the teacher’s resignation.

Debra Taylor’s class began practicing in January for a short video performance of the play "The Laramie Project," based on the 1998 beating death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

When a school official told her to stop production, Taylor took students to a park next to the school and held a mock funeral.

The next day, Superintendent Ed Turlington canceled the class, and Taylor was suspended with pay.

"It got so misconstrued," Taylor said about the mock funeral. "I was told to shut it down and close it off, and I did, or at least I thought."

Taylor, 50, resigned in protest on March 6 without the school board recommending she do so, said John Moyer, school attorney.

Turlington told The Lawton Constitution that school officials planned to dismiss Taylor last week, but she resigned instead.

"It was a win-win situation," he told the newspaper.

Students Matt Ebner, 18, and Amber Squires, 15, said they were angry the class and video were canceled.

"We were trying to promote tolerance and compassion," Ebner told The Oklahoman. "And instead we were confronted with prejudice. And that’s really what upset us as a student body. We really didn’t expect that from our school."

They said the project was designed to be a 15- to 30-minute video excerpt of the play to be shared with an out-of-state school rather than performed for Grandfield High School and members of the community.

Dwight Parker, minister of the town’s Church of Christ, said he and several other preachers went to Turlington with concerns after checking the script online and finding graphic sexual content and multiple uses of sexually oriented curse words.

Rather than a gay rights issue, it’s one of upsetting moral standards and Taylor ignoring Turlington’s authority, Parker said.

"This play was very offensive and used every imaginable curse word," Parker said, adding that the preachers weren’t trying to create an environment of hatred.

Elizabeth Squires, whose daughter Amber was one of Taylor’s students, said she wasn’t concerned about the words in the short, rewritten script.

"The whole thing was about showing people what hatred is, trying to prevent it. It wasn’t about gays," she said. "This whole ordeal to me is that this was a teacher teaching kids to understand that we’re all different, we’re all unique and we all have different ideas."

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