Education

Conway Springs teacher says he will not resign; news conference canceled

A Conway Springs Middle School teacher at the center of a controversy over showing an anti-bullying film says he will not resign; a joint news conference for Thursday evening has been canceled.
A Conway Springs Middle School teacher at the center of a controversy over showing an anti-bullying film says he will not resign; a joint news conference for Thursday evening has been canceled. Courtesy of Google

A Conway Springs teacher at the center of a controversy over showing an anti-bullying film has decided not to resign, a move that could force a school board vote on whether he can return to the classroom.

“I changed my mind,” Tom Leahy said Thursday. “I’d like to continue teaching.”

Leahy, a social studies teacher at Conway Springs Middle School, has been on leave and was asked to resign after he showed his eighth-grade history students “Love Is All You Need,” a short film that depicts a fictional world in which heterosexual children are bullied by homosexual classmates.

He and Superintendent Clay Murphy were scheduled to address the community at a joint news conference Thursday evening. That event was canceled shortly after noon at Leahy’s request, Murphy said.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t want me to give up on this. People I don’t even know,” Leahy said.

He said he plans to address the Conway Springs school board when it meets at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

“I’d like to have the chance to tell them my side of things. I think they will be OK with that,” he said.

Leahy, 56, has taught in Conway Springs since 1997. He had planned to retire at the end of this school year.

The movie he showed his eighth-grade students last month 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 showed the film after a history lesson took a disturbing turn. He directed students last month to create their own colonies, like early American settlers, and several students declared that homosexuals would not be allowed in their colonies, Leahy said. Other students created colonies where everyone was welcome, which led to heated debates and hard feelings.

Days after Leahy showed the film, some parents and others expressed concerns about it to the school principal and district leaders. Leahy did not get the principal’s permission to show the film, he said, and did not notify parents in advance.

Some parents were upset by the graphic nature of the film’s conclusion, which shows brief close-up images of the main character slitting her wrists, he said. Others objected to a scene in the movie in which a Catholic church leader tells parishioners that “any … person harboring lust in their heart for the opposite sex will burn in hell.”

On Thursday, Leahy said the biggest factor in his decision not to resign was “my conscience.”

Murphy, the superintendent, said he couldn’t comment on Leahy’s situation because it remains a personnel matter.

“In these situations, there’s no winners,” Murphy said Thursday. “We all lose. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is. You’ve got two divided sides, and you can’t please everybody.”

Since a Wichita Eagle story was published Monday, Leahy has received “an unbelievable amount of support” from parents, students and community members, he said.

Leaders of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, a national anti-bullying organization, said Thursday it plans to launch a widespread effort in support of Leahy. The foundation is named for an 18-year-old Rutgers University student who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in 2010 after being bullied by classmates.

“This is a moment where a small town is going to be known for how it treats one of its own,” said Sean Kosofsky, the foundation’s executive director.

“Is this town going to rally behind a teacher who did nothing wrong, or is it going to cave to fear?”

Kosofsky said his organization and others encourage people to be “upstanders” by intervening if they witness bullying, reporting incidents or reaching out to the victim to offer support.

“This teacher saw an act of discrimination happening in his classroom and said, ‘This is a teachable moment. I could ignore it, but instead I’m going to stand up,’ ” Kosofsky said. “And instead of being lauded, he was punished.

“This just can’t stand in 2015. … We have to respond.”

A local online petition asking district leaders to reinstate Leahy had gathered more than 1,800 signatures as of Thursday evening.

Rachel Moses, a Moundridge para-educator who started the petition, has never met Leahy. Moses said she was prompted to support him after learning about the circumstances that led him to show the film in class.

“His message was clear: tolerance, acceptance, fairness, integrity and peace,” Moses said. “He asked our sons and daughters to stop the hate that filters our world. … He challenged them to be better today than they were the day before.”

Leahy’s last day teaching was Oct. 21. He said he has been on personal leave and cleaned out his classroom last weekend.

Angie Mooneyham, whose daughter Karley is in Leahy’s class, said she supports the teacher’s actions and hopes he is allowed to finish the school year and retire as planned.

“He is a one-of-a-kind teacher who really, truly cares and is involved,” Mooneyham said.

“It’s unfortunate that he’s tried to open the mind of kids, show them that you shouldn’t hate, you shouldn’t discriminate … and this is what happens.”

Local leaders of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network said Leahy’s situation emphasizes the need for anti-bullying and harassment policies that specifically protect gay, bisexual and transgender students. The Conway Springs district does not have such a policy.

“What kind of message does calling for Mr. Leahy’s resignation send to other educators who are trying to ensure their schools are safe for LGBT students and teach respect for all?” said Liz Hamor, co-founder of the group.

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

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