The Westboro Baptist Church announced the pickets on a flyer released on Christmas Day.
The Topeka-based church known for its anti-LGBT rhetoric called Shawnee Mission East and Olathe Northwest high schools “cesspools” filled with problems it has long proclaimed are plaguing the country: gay students, divorce and fornication.
It was not exactly clear why Olathe Northwest and Shawnee Mission East were targeted. In its flyer, the Westboro church referenced Olathe Northwest’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance. The church has picketed Shawnee Mission East at least twice — in 2009 and at last year’s graduation — since the school named Matt Pope its first openly gay homecoming king in 2007.
Nine years ago, when the church first “came after one of our own,” Shawnee Mission East Principal John McKinney said, the school community responded with a rally that drew 1,000 people and raised thousands for AIDS research.
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But since the church showed up at last year’s graduation ceremony, Shawnee Mission East has employed a different strategy, one student leaders were adamant be used Friday.
And so a week after the church failed to show at scheduled picket at Olathe Northwest High School, when Westboro returned Friday morning in small numbers to the northeast intersection outside Shawnee Mission East, students weren’t present to hear the church spout their views.
“I asked them what they wanted to do,” McKinney said this week about a meeting he called with student leaders earlier this month about the church, which is considered a hate group by the Southern Law Poverty Center. “Without missing the beat, they all said we don’t want to give them any attention. That’s what they want and crave and need.”
Student groups, administrators and some community groups begged those outraged at the church’s presence Friday not to counter-protest.
“There was this consensus that the last thing we want to give the Westboro Baptist Church is the spotlight, attention. Because that’s what’s going to highlight their hatred for the diversity of our cultures and our students,” said senior and Gay/Straight Alliance President Daniel Long.
“Our approach is that spreading love at our school and not addressing them all, basically ignoring them, is the best way to celebrate love and diversity at our school and keep hatred out.”
Instead, student leaders planned a morning of welcoming to let East students know they are supported and noticed. Members of the student groups, including the Feminists Club and the Gay/Straight Alliance, welcomed students with signs and cheers as they walked through the door.
Students wore white to symbolize love. Others wore T-shirts designed last semester by senior Libby O’Connor for an art and statistics project. The shirts, produced in multiple colors, state statistics about realities affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual people.
“In 2013, 67 percent of hate crime homicides were committed against transgender women of color.”
“LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group.”
School officials, including several board members and interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick, stood in the halls alongside students as members of the band played tunes for students on their way to class. A community member delivered handwritten notes of support from parents, teachers and advocates to Shawnee Mission East’s office.
In a way, Shawnee Mission East senior Iman Jaroudi said, it feels like the school community is doing something right if Westboro continues to protest its culture.
“I was telling a teacher yesterday...we have LGBT people here and we let them exist in peace but we don’t only do that,” said Jaroudi, who is the co-founder and co-president of the school’s Feminists Club. “We make it known to the entire school. We are not shy about this. We are proud of our LGBT peers and LGBT friends. And we want everyone to know that they are not only welcome here, they are celebrated here.”
On Jan. 12, as freezing temperatures hit the metropolitan area, the Westboro church didn’t show up for its scheduled picket at Olathe Northwest. On Friday, a few members of the church stood on an intersection for a half-hour.
“Westboro Baptist Church had the honor to preach Christ to the students at Shawnee Mission East who have been led astray by parents, teachers, leaders! Stop the soul-damning lies and enabling sin!” the church tweeted to The Star.
But while some counter-protesters from other communities stood across from church members, the students of Shawnee Mission East were indoors, laughing with their friends as they walked through a “tunnel of positivity” set up for them by their peers, walking past signs that said “L-O-V-E” and “Straight or Queer, you’re welcome here” and preparing to start their day.
An exception was a student journalist who returned to the school building after taking a photograph of the demonstration. He passed another student in the hallway.
“This lady was singing this evil song, talking about kids going to hell,” the student photographer said.
“That’s crazy,” his friend replied.
Then the boys smiled. Because it was. And they went back to class.