The Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis are making their way onto high school and college campuses across America — but they’re not sneaking in, they’re being invited.
A handful of teachers are allowing these groups into their classrooms in an effort, they say, to expose students to their messages of hate.
It’s a tradition that Worthington Kilbourne High School in Columbus, Ohio, started back in the 1970s for seniors in a class titled “U.S. Political Thought and Radicalism.” The class, which also covers topics such as immigration, environmentalism and abortion, spends a couple of weeks each semester interacting with hate groups, including Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, the tiny, ardently anti-gay church best known for staging protests at the funerals of American soldiers killed in combat.
School officials insist they do not endorse these hate groups, nor has any student ever been converted to their way of thinking. Instead, the classes are held so students can witness the extreme views such groups espouse and know how to avoid them.
“The kids see through their messages,” said David Strausbaugh, who along with Scott DiMauro, teaches the Worthington Kilbourne class. “They know. There’s nobody — nobody — who leaves and says, ‘Boy, we’ve got to join these people.’ That’s why we can bring them in, because we know the kids are going to see them for who they are.”
The Ohio school is not alone. Across the country, other schools also are organizing classes to give students a taste of the message purveyed by hate groups. At Portland State University in Oregon, sociology professor Randy Blazak said he brings in neo-Nazis to talk with his students about the role of extremism in society.
“It’s a good idea to know what’s out there,” Mr. Blazak said. “They’re not monsters. They’re human beings, wrestling with their own issues.”
Timothy Boudreau invites representatives from Westboro to speak to his journalism class at Central Michigan University because, he said, it teaches students a powerful lesson about the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular speech, speech exercised by people we would rather silence or muzzle,” Mr. Boudreau tells his students.
“I don’t endorse them, I don’t agree with them,” he said. “I do, however, support their right to speak and their right to be hateful and their right to offend. Like it or not, that’s their right as Americans.”
Some schools find that it is less controversial to speak with these hate groups over the phone or through video-messaging services such as Skype, as opposed to bringing them directly into the classroom. Andrea White, a teacher at Badger High School in Lake Geneva, Wis., confirmed she invites members of the Westboro church to speak with her students by phone and they have not visited the school.
Despite the hateful messages and ideologies, teachers say their students benefit by hearing directly from these groups. School officials say such classes can teach students critical thinking skills and encourage them to stand up for their beliefs. The classes rank among the most popular with students, who pack classrooms to hear them.
“At some point, you’re going to hear something that you don’t agree with,” Mr. Strausbaugh tells his students. “At the very least, listen, and even if you don’t agree with them, try to understand where they’re coming from, try to figure out why they believe what they do.”
Mr. Blazak said classes like these also can help students reflect on the underlying prejudices in society.