GRANDFIELD — A class project on a gay college student’s murder has cost a teacher her job and left this south Oklahoma community of 1,200 divided. 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 students took five to 10 minutes to write their thoughts on paper about not getting to do the video, placed them in helium balloons and let them go. The next day, Superintendent Ed Turlington canceled the class, Taylor said in published reports. Taylor, 50, resigned on March 6 without the school board recommending she do so, said John Moyer, school attorney. Neither Turlington nor Taylor returned telephone calls from The Oklahoman. 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 said. "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. In published reports, Turlington said he objected to obscenity in the script, not homosexuality. 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.”
Norman group gets involvedParents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays became involved after someone called the group’s Norman hot line to report the controversy. Kay Ham, president of PFLAG-Norman, said the group’s intention is to work constructively with the community, not to point fingers. Kay Holladay, safe schools coordinator for PFLAG-Norman, said the teacher resignation is the school’s business, but the whole situation makes her want to cry. "A lot of people find ‘Tom Sawyer’ offensive,” she said. "What are you really censoring? Are you censoring an F word which can be seen and heard each and every day in the hallways of schools or trying to teach something concrete on hate crimes and the devastation of targeting people just because of who they are?” Judie Bright, editor of the local weekly paper, the Big Pasture News, said she’s ready to see the controversy end. "I hate to see our little town get a black eye, and I hate to see it divide our town,” she said.