Even if no Westboro Baptist Church protesters show up early Monday at Manitou Springs High School hoisting vulgar, derogatory signs the Kansas church is known for, students, parents, staff and police are prepared.
Students at the high school have organized a kindness campaign in response to Westboro Baptist Church sending a letter to the town’s police chief a few weeks ago announcing the church planned to send a contingency from its Topeka, Kan., congregation to the Pikes Peak region to picket outside the high school, as well as at a few local churches.
A fundraiser was planned Friday night to benefit LGBTQ, military and veterans and other groups the church targets with hate messages.
“Our goal is simple: student leaders hope to work with our loving community to show the utmost support and love to Manitou Springs High School students without rewarding the Westboro Baptist Church with the reaction they seek,” Sophia McKeown, a junior at Manitou Springs High, wrote in a message to the community.
Westboro Baptist Church verbally attacks specific groups, many of which Manitou Springs high schoolers are a part of, Sophia said, including LGBTQ people, children of military families and religious organizations.
Some students from Manitou Springs High’s Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance have been fearful, Sophia said.
“A lot were confused as to why they were coming and said they usually feel safe but now feel unsafe,” she said. “They’re happy and hopeful, though, to see how many people in the community are there for them.”
For more than 20 years, Westboro has picketed at funerals of fallen military members around the nation and brought anti-gay rhetoric to events and locations.
Founder Fred Phelps died five years ago, and church members have carried on, usually bringing six to 20 participants. Westboro, though, often announces it will picket an event or place but does not show up.
At a protest this year at Virginia’s State Capitol in Richmond, counter-protesters outnumbered Westboro protesters.
Manitou Springs School District 14 Superintendent Elizabeth Domangue said she does not know why Manitou Springs High was singled out as a demonstration site.
“Many, many folks have reached out to see how they could support us leading up to this,” she said, including other school districts.
Classes will begin at the normal time Monday, the superintendent said. Although the letter sent to the town’s police chief informing him of the intended protest said their “members are at all times and in all ways law-abiding and non-violent,” Domangue said protesters are known to hold large signs and yell at passersby of all ages.
“Keeping children safe before, during and after will be our No. 1 priority,” she said, adding that extra police will be on campus.
Students and parents have been advised that ignoring protesters is the best strategy.
“It brings less attention to them and ends up being the least disruptive,” Domangue said.
Volunteers from the Parasol Patrol, a nonprofit organization that protects children from hate speech, plan to shield students from protesters with large colorful umbrellas, according to social media posts.
Mental health providers will be available to talk to students, Domangue said.
Events and actions students have organized over the weekend “fall under the idea of a ‘Culture of Kindness,’ which works to further encourage the kindness and acceptance our school already embodies,” Sophia said.
A collaboration of student clubs planned a tailgate fundraiser from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday night in Mustang Plaza behind the high school before a home football game.
Sources of Strength, a social-emotional well-being movement; the school’s Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance; the Key Club; and Student Council were set to host the event, featuring music, games and food. Donations will benefit three local charities, Inside/Out Youth Services, the Mission Critical Veterans Relief Fund and Urban Peak of Colorado Springs.
Sophia said those organizations were selected because they are among the groups the Westboro Baptist Church objects to.
“The intention of the tailgate party is to provide a space for community members and students to come together and share ideas of love, kindness and acceptance for one another,” Sophia said.
It’s important that young LGBTQ people and the community as a whole “recognize that bigotry doesn’t have a place in this community,” said Jessie Pocock, executive director of Inside/Out Youth Services, which provides services for LGBTQ youth in El Paso and Teller counties.
“It’s really disturbing Westboro continues to deliver messages of intolerance and hate,” Pocock said.
LGBTQ youths are at higher risk for suicide attempts and substance abuse, she said, due to “the messages they receive about their identity” and twice as likely than their peers to be bullied.
On Sunday afternoon, Manitou Springs High School’s Student Council will decorate the sidewalks behind the high school with positive chalk messages for students to read as they walk into school Monday.
“The hope is that the Westboro Baptist Church protesters will witness no reaction,” Sophia said, “but instead, as students turn the corner around the high school that morning, they will be immediately immersed into an environment of overwhelming love and safety.”