Education

Conway Springs teacher asked to resign after anti-bullying video upsets parents

Leahy
Leahy Courtesy photo

A Conway Springs teacher has been asked to resign after showing students an anti-bullying film that depicts a fictional world in which heterosexual children are bullied by homosexual classmates.

Tom Leahy, a social studies teacher at Conway Springs Middle School, is on leave and likely won’t return to teaching because the controversial video “upset too many people,” he said Monday.

“I knew something was going to happen. I just didn’t know this would happen,” Leahy said.

Conway Springs Superintendent Clay Murphy confirmed Monday that Leahy was on leave but would not disclose the reason or say whether the teacher is being paid. Leahy, 56, has taught in Conway Springs since 1997. He had planned to retire after this school year, he said.

“He’s on leave, and that’s about all I can tell you,” Murphy said. “He’s not in the classroom right now.”

The Conway Springs school board is set to meet Nov. 9, at which point it is expected to accept the teacher’s resignation, Leahy said. Calls to several board members, including board president Eddie Allen and vice president Bill Dalbom, were not returned Monday.

Leahy said he showed the independent film, “Love Is All You Need,” to three eighth-grade history classes last month as a lesson in tolerance.

The 19-minute movie, which went viral on YouTube in 2011, portrays a heterosexual girl being raised in a dystopian society where homosexuality is the norm. The girl is bullied by classmates – to the indifference of several teachers and other adults – until she commits suicide.

Leahy said he was prompted to share the film with his eighth-graders after a lesson in American history earlier in the year took a disturbing turn.

The students were split into groups and asked to create fictional colonies, each with its own Bill of Rights to outline fundamental principles, Leahy said. At least one group wrote that homosexuals would not be allowed in its colony, he said, a move that upset some other students in the class.

“I was expecting fairly positive kinds of colonies: ‘Do things we think are right, and be nice.’ But it just kind of got twisted around, and it became a place where certain people weren’t allowed,” Leahy said.

“Then the issue of gay vs. straight came up, and a lot of them were not allowing gays into their colony and stuff like that. … There were some hard feelings. Kids were getting upset.”

Leahy said he searched online for films that dealt with the bullying of gay and lesbian students and found “Love Is All You Need,” which was written and directed by Kim Rocco Shields, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker. He shared it with students the next day.

Leahy did not get his principal’s permission to show the film, he said. Nor did he send a note home to parents to give them the opportunity to opt their children out of watching it.

“I didn’t want just a dorky little film,” Leahy said. “I wanted something that was important, something that was serious. So that’s the one I came up with.”

“I’m not saying what I did was very smart. It really wasn’t,” he said. “But I’m a spur-of-the-moment kind of guy, and it seemed right at the time.”

‘Sad, disappointed’

A few days after he showed the film, Leahy said he was called into his principal’s office and was told several parents were upset about the subject matter and tone of the film. He also spoke with Murphy, the superintendent, who told him he had received calls as well.

Leahy said he talked with some parents during parent-teacher conferences and explained why he decided to show the film. Some told him they were upset by the graphic nature of the film’s conclusion, which shows brief images of the main character slitting her wrists, the teacher said.

“Yeah, it was a little rough. I get it,” Leahy said Monday. “But shoot, these kids play video games that are decapitating people.”

Others objected to a scene in the movie in which a female church leader addresses a Catholic congregation:

“In light of recent events in the Netherlands, where heterosexual marriage is now allowed, Pope Joan VII wants to remind Catholics all over the world that the church has not changed its stance on this issue,” says the character, who is dressed in clerical robes.

“It is a sin for a man to lust after a woman. It is an abomination for a woman to lie with a man outside of the breeding season. … Any such person harboring lust in their heart for the opposite sex will burn in hell.”

A significant portion of the Conway Springs population – a town of about 1,300 people in Sumner County, southwest of Wichita – are members of the Catholic church.

Leahy, a married father of two, said he talked with students about the religious aspects of the film and the filmmaker’s decision to call out the Catholic church specifically.

“The students understood this could have been any religion,” he said. “I did say I think it was unfair to Catholics, that I thought it was kind of a cheap shot.”

Leahy said he expected the film to create discussion and possibly upset some parents and others. But he didn’t expect the level of outcry that eventually led administrators to suggest he leave the district.

“There are people who don’t want their children in my classroom,” he said. “I thought that I’d take a little time off and then come back, and people would cool their heels and everything would be better. That didn’t happen.”

Leahy said his last day teaching was Oct. 21. He has been on leave since then and he began cleaning out his classroom last weekend, he said.

“I don’t hold grudges against anybody,” he said. “I think it got out of hand, and the people in charge had to do what they had to do.

“I’m just – I don’t know what the word is – sad, disappointed.”

Creating discussion

This isn’t the first time the film has caused controversy in schools. Parents and church pastors in Putnam County, Fla., protested the movie in 2014, after a first-year agriscience teacher showed it to students in his Future Farmers of America classes.

Shields, the film’s creator, said she talked with Leahy recently and is aware of the situation in Conway Springs.

“I am sad that there is a backlash, but there shouldn’t be,” Shields said Monday.

“Good teachers create discussions. They challenge their students to think outside of their boxes,” she said. “I have had the buy-in of educators from all over the world who are using this in class and telling me what an exceptional learning tool this is.”

Prompted by the popularity of the short film, Shields made “Love Is All You Need” into a feature-length movie. She recently completed production and plans to shop it around to film festivals next year, she said.

The film was “created out of love,” she said, and inspired by news reports of teens and younger children who committed suicide after being bullied because of their sexual orientation.

“People see this film and they are compelled to show it to children for a reason, because it offers this lens, through inversion, which is an educational tool,” Shields said.

“I think the best movements of history have been spawned from discussion, spawned from challenging the way people think, and that’s the only way to create change.”

Leahy said he understands why some in the community are upset he shared the film with students, but he doesn’t regret doing it.

“Now I’m just really hoping this community can heal and maybe find some peace,” he said. “These are people I’ve known my whole life, and I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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