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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 11/11/2009

What should schools do when they become the target of hate groups?

By Valerie Strauss

Some Washington area schools are being targeted for protests by an extremist church from Kansas whose website attacks gays, blacks, Jews and other minorities, as well as any whites who manage to get along with them.

On Monday, Westboro Baptist Church members protested at private Sidwell School's middle and upper school campus in the District, where President Obama’s two daughters attend. Yesterday it was Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County because, the group's website says, the school has a diversity club. And later in the day it was Sidwell's lower school campus in Bethesda.

Westboro, in an effort to stir controversy and gain publicity, stages protests around the country and announces many more protests than it actually holds. Military funerals are a special target, on the church's theory that fallen troops are God’s punishment for a country tolerant of homosexuals.

On Monday ffive Westboro representatives were met by several hundred Sidwell students and adults dressed in rainbow colors and holding signs with positive messages. The same thing happened yesterday at BCC, five Westboro representatives found hundreds of students and BCC staff stood together quietly holding signs with messages of tolerance and peace.

Before the protests, parents exchanged e-mails debating the best way to react to Westboro. Some argued for using the situation to let students engage in civic action by banding together to stand up for their beliefs.

"In my opinion, BCC community members are right to use this as a teachable moment," said one parent e-mail. "How can diversity be honored within healthy communities? How can healthy people respond when an unprovoked attack occurs on people they care about? How do we show love (a universal value) in the face of hate?"

Others said that it was best to ignore the group, arguing that Westboro loves publicity, even when it is negative. Said one parent e-mail: "Please use your heads! If you threw a party and no one showed up. .. would you throw another one anytime soon?"

Here’s a message sent out to the school’s parents by the principal intern, Bennie W. Green, after yesterday's events:

Dear B-CC Parents,

The protest by the WBC and the counter protest by our students went off without incident.

The WBC was represented by three adults and two children. B-CC was represented by several hundred students and many of our staff. There was also a significant police presence in the area.

From the beginning, you would have been proud as our students silently demonstrated their solidarity with one another by standing together and displaying signs with positive messages. Throughout the counter protest students communicated a sense of unity and respect for each other.

The counter protest concluded at 7:24 a.m. with an impressive recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. After the protest concluded, students immediately proceeded to their first period class.

During the beginning of first period, I praised the students for their maturity, self-control, and the positive way in which they represented B-CC. They were great!

Bennie W. Green, Principal Intern
Bethesda Chevy Chase High School

Here’s the question: Should schools ignore protesters with messages of hate or use the occasion to encourage students to make their own anti-hate stand?

By Valerie Strauss  | November 11, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Civics Education, High School  | Tags:  Sidwell Friends School, hate groups  
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I despise WBC and any ink they get, but having the students respond like this is great. People can't stay sheltered from the ugliness in this world and this is one of the most positive ways of countering that particular group I've seen.

Posted by: marksabbatini | November 11, 2009 8:11 AM | Report abuse

If schools choose not to respond, they are sending an implicit message that this type of hate speech should be tolerated. I think it is very important that schools provide an option to express an opinion as part of citizenship. It is these teachable moments that may provide the deepest lesson for these kids.

Posted by: Brooklander | November 11, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

The responses fashioned by the B-CC community, and the Walt Whitman High School community last spring, have been perfect. By showing a dignified support for diversity, those students and staff members have put Westboro to shame. Check out the video at

Posted by: Vista1 | November 11, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

As a student of B-CC High School I was proud to show our unity. We were out there not only to protest people who are negative and hateful but also to display our tolerance and our diversity. As a school of almost 1900 kids, everyone is represented and tolerated. Even students who were of younger grades (freshmen and sophomores) showed maturity and were able to voice themselves without violence or hate.

Posted by: bccstudent | November 11, 2009 9:27 PM | Report abuse

all I can say about the WBC. As an American they make me sick. If they had the concentration camps here as they did in WWII, all the members of that sick church would be the first ones that would be rounded up, tried for treason $ shot.

Posted by: jamaicanredneck94 | November 12, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

Oh, as for my previous comment. I will not say I'm sorry. I ment every word of it. I'm not P.C. I say what is on my my mind. I am a white, 56 year old, southern redneck who has been married nine years to a wonderful black Jamaican woman and I am a proud Republican.

Posted by: jamaicanredneck94 | November 12, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

To B-CC and Sidwell students and faculty:
All your students learned a lesson in democracy and politics that will stand them in good stead the rest of their lives.
My husband is a schoolteacher down here in Texas and we wonder what would have happened had such a protest visited their school.
You all make us very proud of your actions.
You didn't let these harassing people who don't know you from Adam and came half-way across the country to drive some people nuts by their inappropriate behavior ...
You didn't let them capture the limelight.
You, instead, overwhelmed them.
Good for you.
To have tried to ignore them gives rise to the old canard:
"Silence gives consent."
You made sure that it was very clear -- you do not espouse their strange political and theological positions.
Instead, you taught the world a lesson which, we have to admit, the 5 Westwooders will never learn.
But, 'twas ever thus.
It was certainly worth the effort you all made.
Again: thanks!

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | November 12, 2009 9:08 PM | Report abuse

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