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.
“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.
Will Bishop, a former student at Worthington Kilbourne who is gay, still remembers when representatives from the Westboro church came to his class.
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.
Michael Mayberry, another former student at Worthington Kilbourne and one of Mr. Bishop’s friends, was shocked by some of things he heard from the Westboro speakers.
“When you have someone come in and tell you you’re going to hell, it can mess with your mind,” Mr. Mayberry said. “I’m sure if I were gay, I would have probably felt a little endangered. Not that we were actually in danger, but when you see the face of hatred, it’s terrifying.”
For her part, Westboro’s Ms. Phelps-Roper admitted it can be “a bit awkward” when she speaks to students. “Sometimes it gets really emotional,” she said, “and I’m sorry about that, I’m sorry that they’ve been lied to.”
Mr. Strausbaugh called such hate groups “crazy.”
Two years ago, the Kilbourne teachers invited Westboro members to come to Columbus and speak to the students, but afterwards the church picketed outside another nearby school, angering many in the local community. Ever since, the school has been Skyping with Westboro, instead, to avoid another confrontation.
Westboro’s Ms. Phelps-Roper realizes some teachers may only invite her to speak so they can ridicule her message of hate. She calls them “mockers” and “scoffers,” but doesn’t let it discourage her.
“I thank God for those teachers,” Ms. Phelps-Roper said. “Whatever their reason is for having us, we’re very thankful for any opportunity we get and we don’t care what their agenda is.”
Anti-discrimination groups, such as the Jewish right Anti-Defamation League and the civil rights watchdog the Southern Poverty Law Center, declined to comment on the class. The ADL, however, acknowledged they are aware of the hate groups speaking at Worthington Kilbourne and that they also have made presentations to the students there.
The Ohio school has also invited John Taylor Bowles, a lobbyist for the American Nazi Party, to speak with students several times over the last few years, although he is not on the schedule for the current school year.
On his neo-Nazi blog, Mr. Bowles brags about speaking to an Ohio school, where his message was “well-received” and that some students “even expressed support for the American Nazi Party.”
“Students came up and shook my hand at the end of the class,” Mr. Bowles wrote. “This was the first time in four years that this happened!!!”
Mr. Bowles tried to hide the name of the school and declined to comment, but Mr. Strausbaugh confirmed he spoke to his class at Worthington Kilbourne. He said Mr. Bowles talked to the students about “race wars,” and tried to convince them that America would be at peace if white people would move to the North, black people would move to the South, Jewish people would move to Long Island, and Hispanic people would move to the Southwest.
Mr. Strausbaugh said the KKK has also spoken to students at his school in the past, but that was before he began teaching the class.
The hate groups are usually on their “best behavior” when they visit the classrooms, Mr. Strausbaugh said, because they want to “impress the kids.”
“They’re very subtle,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘We don’t hate black people, we just love white people.’ It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what they’re really saying.”
Mr. Blazak acknowledged that inviting hate groups into the classroom could make them appear more plausible and moderate to the students they meet.
“The risk is that they become more legitimate if we give them an audience,” he said. “They are such an outlier, but without the back story, teenagers may see them as just another legitimate political party.”
To prepare his class before the presentations, Mr. Blazak spends nine weeks teaching about the history and beliefs of these hate groups before he brings them into speak to his students.
But no matter how much time Mr. Blazak spends preparing his class to hear from these extremists, he warned that a small number of students still may be drawn to their messages of hate.
“The majority of students will reject them,” he said, “but there will always be that one student who feels alienated and may think that group is a way to give them a sense of power.”
Mr. Strausbaugh said he monitors students throughout the semester to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“We, as educators, certainly do not want to put our students in a position where we are enabling kids to join with that kind of thinking,” he said. “Just because we’re studying these groups, in no way do we condone what they believe. If anything, we want to study it, so they know how to avoid it.”