Faced with demonstrations by anti-gay extremists, administrators at schools in the Baltimore and Washington areas worked with law-enforcement officials and took other steps in advance to maintain a peaceful environment for students and faculty members last week.
Members of Westboro Baptist Church, classified as a hate group by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, picketed on roads near but not on school property at Fairfax High School in Fairfax County, Va., as well as on roads near Towson High School in Towson, Md., on March 30, denouncing those schools’ gay-straight alliances and diversity groups.
The Topeka, Kan.-based church has also announced plans to demonstrate at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., on April 24 because the famed poet the school is named for is widely thought to have been homosexual.
“I think this is one of those situations where what you really want to do is focus on why you’re here in the first place, which is students and student achievement,” said Scott Brabrand, the principal of the 2,200-student Fairfax High School.
All three schools have coordinated with local law enforcement to ensure extra security in case of any confrontation between protestors and students, although none took place at either Fairfax High or Towson High during the demonstrations last week.
Both those schools and Whitman High also sent letters home to parents to alert them to the protest plans.
Westboro Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with any known Baptist associations, first drew national attention when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shephard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student whose 1998 death by torture and beating was attributed to anti-homosexual animus.
More recently, the roughly 70-member group—made up mostly of the immediate and extended family of its founder, Fred Phelps—has gained notoriety for picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers. The Westboro church claims that American war deaths are the judgment of a just God and punishment for the United States because of its tolerance of homosexuality.
When asked in an e-mail message what the group hoped to accomplish during its demonstrations at schools, a representative provided a rambling response containing biblical citations and denunciations of immorality in American society.
The group has regularly chosen schools, as well as churches, as targets for its demonstrations, and several schools are listed on its upcoming picketing schedule, which is online at www.godhatesfags.com/schedule.html.
Members often carry signs with messages such as “God Hates Fags,” and “God Hates Fag Enablers.”
A letter sent home to parents of students at Towson High, part of the Baltimore County, Md., district, on March 25 announced that March 30 would be “Unity Day.” It said students could write short sentences expressing what unity means to them, to be attached to pinwheels that would be placed in the school’s garden as a symbolic counter to the protestors.
“Our hope is that as you leave for the day, the wind will carry these positive expressions to all,” said the letter, written by the 1,475-student school’s principal, Jane Barranger.
Parents and students were also told that the exit closest to the demonstration would be closed, and that all students would be dismissed through the opposite exit.
‘A Stronger Message’
At Virginia’s Fairfax High, Mr. Brabrand encouraged students and faculty to show their unity by continuing with the day in a normal, orderly fashion.
“At the end of the day, I felt we could send a stronger message inside the school as a united student body,” than outside engaging in a counter-protest against the Westboro church members, he said.
Alan S. Goodwin, the principal of the 1,300-student Walt Whitman High, is in talks with security officials in the Montgomery County, Md., school district as well as local police about the protest scheduled for April 24.
The demonstrations may also open up an opportunity for teachers to talk about tolerance, civil rights, and good citizenship, as well as First Amendment rights, said Terrance L. Furin, a former superintendent of the 4,800-student Owen J. Roberts school district in Pottstown, Pa., where he had experiences countering a neo-Nazi group that was trying to recruit students from the schools.
Administrators might consider establishing “unity” coalitions involving members of the community, he suggested.
Scott Hirschfield, the director of curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League, based in New York City, also sees a chance for learning.
“There’s a real opportunity here to educate students about civil rights issues,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week as Schools Take Steps to Defuse Anti-Gay Group’s Protests