A Catholic high school in Iowa which previously fired a gay teacher is now refusing honors to a graduating senior who is also gay.
Officials at Dowling Catholic High School, West Des Moines, have said senior Liam Jameson may not receive an LGBT scholarship from the Eychaner Foundation during the school’s awards ceremony this Thursday. Jameson is asking school officials to reverse their decision, so that he can be recognized equally for his accomplishments, reported OutSports. A Change.org petition, which you can sign here, has more than 1,000 signatures already. The student wrote an open letter explaining his appeal, stating in part:
“I’ve worked hard to prevent suicides, and having this scholarship presented allows other students to learn that LGBTQ students are valued in society, not shunned. That’s why the Committee presents the scholarships at Senior Awards Programs, to try and help save other young lives who feel isolated and worthless, like I once did. . .Bishop Pates, President Deegan, Principal Meendering, please choose life and demonstrate that all lives are worthy of ‘wholeness and dignity’. Doing so shows the entire Dowling Catholic student body that they are truly valued and loved regardless of who they are.”
The Eychaner Foundation describes itself as a “non-profit organization committed to promoting tolerance and non-discrimination,” and notes that it is “dedicated to anti-bullying.” Jameson was awarded the $40,000 Matthew Shepard Scholarship, named after hate crime victim whose 1998 murder in Wyoming sparked a national call to end violence against LGBT people. The scholarship recognizes Jameson’s leadership as a gay student at Dowling Catholic where he helped organize a 250-student walk-out last year protesting the firing of gay teacher Tyler McCubbin. He also led efforts to found an LGBT club, called One Dowling Family, which provides a safe space at the school. Of this latter work, Jameson shared:
“I wanted to leave Dowling a better place, one worthy enough to educate all the brave souls who have had lives far better and far worse than mine. A space for all. A space that valued the few just as much as it valued the many. That space is now called One Dowling Family, formerly One Human Family. . .I can leave Dowling knowing that I made it a better place, one that provides students a place where they can be free.”
Dowling Catholic administrators released a brief statement yesterday, stating that scholarship organizations are not allowed to present awards during the ceremony, and thus Jameson would be honored in a manner consistent with his peers. The statement reads:
“At Dowling Catholic High School we are proud of all of our senior students who have received awards and scholarships to further their education. All scholarship recipients are honored during the Scholastic Award Assembly. Each senior selects up to two scholarships to be read out loud when a slide that includes their name and picture comes up on the screen. We do not allow organizations who are awarding the scholarship to attend and individually present the scholarship to the student. This policy was shared in writing with the Eychaner Foundation regarding the Matthew Shepard Award. We are pleased one of our students received the Matthew Shepard Award and he will be honored in the same manner as his classmates.”
The Eychaner Foundation refuted this claim with their own statement from Rich Eychaner, which said Dowling Catholic “misrepresents the efforts the efforts the school has gone to in dishonoring Iowa’s Matthew Shepard Scholarship.” The statement continued, noting the scholarship had been presented at Dowling Catholic in 2014 without problem:
“Since then, Dowling constructed and then revised a policy to limit scholarships presented to their students. Dowling further tightened their policy to specifically target the Matthew Shepard Scholarship by writing in ‘rules’ that the school could deny the student’s choice of scholarships that were publicly read under criteria that targeted our scholarship. . .
“After Principal Meendering became aware that Liam intended to apply for Iowa’s Matthew Shepard Scholarship Program the policy was revised to state. . .’Students may choose to accept any award; however Dowling Catholic High School reserves the right to not acknowledge any award.’ (emphasis added)”
Other Iowa Catholic schools have welcomed the Foundation, though not without some controversies. In 2012, a student at Prince of Peace Catholic High School was also the recipient of the Matthew Shepard scholarship from the Eychaner Foundation. Bishop Martin Amos of the Diocese of Davenport originally denied permission for the scholarship to be announced at graduation, but he reversed the decision and allowed the presentation to go forward. The bishop also congratulated the student, and re-affirmed the diocese’s support of anti-bullying and anti-discrimination principles.
In a related note, there are questions about the safety of One Dowling Family as a space inclusive of all students. Fr. Zach Kautzky, the school’s chaplain whose oversight of the safe space group had been mandated by the school, tweeted a link a news story which denigrates transgender identities. Though students have requested Kautzky be replaced, Principal Matt Meendering “downplayed the group’s LGBT focus” and said the matter was being discussed, wrote a columnist for the Des Moines Register.
It is inexplicable why Dowling Catholic administrators will not allow a graduating gay student to be honored alongside his peers, and why rules have been repeatedly revised. Jameson has contributed greatly to the school community, testifying to the power of being one’s authentic self, and to helping his peers do likewise. He should be celebrated not only for receiving this scholarship, but for modeling the type of student that Catholic education seeks to form when it is at its best. School officials will hopefully find a wisdom and courage similar to their student’s and reverse their discriminatory decision. Regardless, Jameson will surely excel at Iowa State next year and then wherever life takes him. Congratulations, Liam!
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry