“It’s something that happens every day in schools across America,” he said. “You don’t need a Nazi to have hate in your school. If you’re saying, ‘That’s so gay,’ you have something in common with Westboro.”
Mr. Blazak explained these sort of classes can hold up a mirror to the students.
“We can agree that Nazis are the bad guys in history, but how much are you like that Nazi in your biases?” he asks them.
Melanie Myers, president of Worthington Kilbourne’s parent-teacher organization, said school officials do a good job of keeping parents informed of the controversial messages their children hear. The school has an open-door policy that allows parents to sit in on classes when they might be concerned about a particular guest speaker.
“It’s no secret,” Ms. Myers said. “The teachers are very upfront about who is speaking and the parents know about it ahead of time. I don’t think any speaker that comes in is a surprise to the parents.”
Dawn Martinski, former president of the parent-teacher organization at the Ohio school, said any concerns she might have had about her daughter, Paige, taking Mr. Strausbaugh’s class were quickly relieved.
“He’s exposing these kids to things that are out there that they’ve probably never experienced before,” she said. “I was a little worried at first, because she was a very sheltered child, but she’s really enjoying it.”
But some students acknowledged being upset when confronting such hateful messages and ideologies in a setting as intimate as a classroom. It’s not uncommon for some students to feel intimidated by these hate groups, particularly minority students who believe they are being discriminated against.
Westboro spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper repeatedly used the “f-word,” a derogatory term for homosexuals that her church also uses in the name of its website, while speaking to the class. She told the students: “If your preacher is telling you it’s OK to be gay, run away. Your preacher is lying to you. Don’t go there.”
Mr. Bishop said he felt like he was the “target of their hate,” but he didn’t back down.
“It always seemed to come back to why gay people are going to hell,” said Mr. Bishop, who is now a student at Texas State University. “I stood up and I was, like, ‘I’m an openly gay student here, and I have several questions for you.’”
Mr. Bishop admitted it was somewhat frustrating when he found himself face-to-face with the Westboro speakers, but he also said Mr. Strausbaugh’s class is one of the school’s best, because it teaches students to be open-minded.
“Before you take the class, the teacher warns you that you’re probably going to be offended at some point,” he said.