Church counterprotest may bring chaos

School request for no response unlikely to be heeded

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Followers of the zealous anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., plan to picket outside Heritage High School on Tuesday.

Saddled with the unwanted visit, Evergreen district leaders would prefer that no one pays notice — that no counterprotest turns the Orchards campus and its neighborhood into a circus.

“We feel strongly that the best way to deal with this event is to ignore it,” Superintendent John Deeder wrote in a letter sent to homes of all Heritage and other Evergreen high schoolers.

Fat chance.

Through Facebook and other social networking, students at Heritage and other local schools have arranged a mass response to the picketing, set for 2:15 to 2:45 p.m.

Gays and their supporters, from former Heritage students to parent advocates, are expected. Likewise, Clark College and church-based and pro-peace groups — even students from Portland’s Grant High School, where Westboro plans to picket on June 3.

Among suggested antics: the silent treatment; cranking up music and dancing to drown out pickets; fundraising to support the very groups Westboro finds objectionable.

At least one local pizza shop owner hopes to feed the masses, if allowed.

With the prospect of a chaotic scene, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office has taken the lead in forming a security plan to keep the peace.

The strategy includes street closures and to steer Heritage students swiftly from the scene as they depart school:

o Sheriff’s deputies will close Northeast 130th Avenue to all traffic between 76th Street and the Padden Parkway bridge, from about 2 to 3:30 p.m.

Times could vary depending on circumstance.

o All students driving from Heritage must turn north onto 130th Avenue. No southbound traffic will be allowed.

o Students normally picked up at school by family members or friends will instead be bused to the nearby Albertsons store lot on Northeast 137th Avenue.

o Students who usually walk from school will be asked to board a bus that will drop them closer to home. They will be dismissed several minutes early to keep all buses on schedule.

o After-school events for the afternoon are cancelled; evening events are unaffected.

Off school grounds

Evergreen’s plea to students and others: Please don’t come.

Having contacted other schools and organizations Westboro has targeted, the district was advised to avoid pickets, Deeder told parents.

“I am asking (counter-protesters) … that you reconsider and stay away,” he wrote. “This has proven to be the most effective response” and the path suggested by law officers, he wrote.

Still, Evergreen can do nothing to thwart students’ actions once school lets out.

“We plan to encourage them to get onto the buses, but we can’t require them,” said Scott Deutsch, district safety and risk manager.

Per district policy, no pickets or protesters will be allowed on school property. They will be limited to public sidewalks on 130th Avenue, under crowd-control measures set by deputies.

No permit is required from Westboro. Heritage lies outside Vancouver city limits and there’s no intent to parade or block traffic, said Sgt. Tim Bieber, sheriff’s office spokesman.

So, deputies will closely monitor the scene “from morning to afternoon,” Bieber said. He doesn’t anticipate any outside help is needed. “Our No. 1 goal is public safety, and to make sure this group’s rights are protected,” he said.

Missed opportunity?

Some believe Evergreen’s plan to hustle away Heritage students and blunt counter-protests is overprotective, however.

“I think it’s silly,” said Becky Huff, whose daughter attends Heritage. She plans to join protests at Heritage and Grant High on Tuesday morning with one of several groups formed via Facebook.

“These are high school kids. You know they’re going to come back” to the scene, Huff said.

“It’s wrong, and there needs to be support (for Westboro’s targets),” she said. She has no wish to “get face-to-face” with pickets but fears detouring students will undercut a united community front and hopes “to raise money for some of the groups they so detestedly hate,” she said.

Claudia Frahm, grandmother of a Heritage 12th-grader, said many students and school staff members are frustrated. She’ll join fellow members of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland in silent vigils at both Heritage and Grant, she said.

“It’s too bad the school can’t use this opportunity to teach these kids to deal with this in a peaceful manner,” Frahm said.

“I don’t believe it’s sending a very good message to these seniors who are graduating next week. You’re telling them they should just turn their backs on something they see that’s wrong, and not do anything,” she said.

That runs counter to her church’s mission, she said. “Violence comes in many forms. The (Westboro hate campaign) leads to violence,” she said.

Deutsch, the district safety manager, expects only peaceful protest, but said officials must ensure “our students are as safe as can be on the way home.”

YouTube.com videos of prior Westboro pickets has affirmed district precautions for this one, he said: “It could be anywhere on the spectrum of nothing, to something.”

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.