'Day of Silence' Spurs Protest
A one-day school boycott is urged to counter support for bullied gay students
Some conservative groups are urging parents to keep children home from school today if their fellow students will be taking part in the annual Day of Silence observation.
Thousands of middle- and high-school students across the nation, including some in the Triangle, plan to take a vow of silence today to bring attention to the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students.
Participation and support for the event, now in its 12th year, varies by school. It has long proved controversial among those opposed to homosexuality.
But this year, a network of local and national conservative groups is calling for a boycott. They claim that allowing some students to be silent in class will not only promote homosexuality, it also will disrupt education.
"If you're not going to be educated that day, why let them go to school?" said Bill Brooks, executive director of the N.C. Family Policy Council, one of the groups encouraging parents to consider taking their children out of school today.
Supporters of the Day of Silence say that is an overreaction.
Seth Keel, 13, an eighth-grader who plans to stay silent today at Apex's West Lake Middle School, called the boycott "silly."
"It's a lifestyle that's going to be happening. Boycotting the school won't help."
Brooks and the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the N.C. Christian Action League, said they don't know whether many families, or just a handful, won't send their children to school.
The number of students who have pledged to take part in the silent protest also isn't publicly available. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the sponsor of the Day of Silence, lists only schools where students have registered. In North Carolina, 199 schools, including 42 in the Triangle, are expected to participate.
"We encourage students to organize around activities they believe in," said Michael Ulku-Steiner, director of the Upper School at Durham Academy.
Ellen Gooding, a faculty sponsor for the Gay-Straight Alliance, a student club, at Cary Academy guessed that as many as half the high school students will be silent today.
Groups such as the American Family Association have developed forms for parents to use to argue that their children should get an excused absence if they boycott school today.
Principals said they'd handle requests for excused absences on a case-by-case basis. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted down a resolution this month that would have granted excused absences to students who boycott the Day of Silence.
Groups opposed to the Day of Silence tried to organize a national walkout last year. Their efforts picked up steam this year when the American Family Association joined the campaign.
Creech is among those who have urged parents to contact schools to see if they're participating in the Day of Silence.
Matt Wight, principal of Apex High School, said he has heard from parents who have asked why the school is participating. He said he has explained to them that it's a student-sponsored event.
"My sense is people are getting misinformation and it's being manipulated into being a school-sponsored event," Wight said.
But Creech said it doesn't matter whether the event is student sponsored. He said a school is complicit if it allows students to remain silent.
On Monday, the Alliance Defense Fund will sponsor the Day of Truth, a rival event to the Day of Silence, in which students will hand out cards saying people need to discuss the truth about homosexuality. Brooks said he doesn't see the Day of Truth as disruptive because students won't be refusing to speak.
Growing since 1996
The Day of Silence started in 1996 as part of a University of Virginia class project on nonviolent protests. Organizers turned it into a national event in 1997, and the number of schools participating has grown ever since.
This year's Day of Silence is in remembrance of a 15-year-old California student who was killed by a classmate in February because of his sexual orientation.
Bullying is the reason that Deirdre Leary, a freshman at Broughton High School in Raleigh, said she intends to be silent today and hand out cards explaining her reasons.
"I believe in taking a stand for those who are mistreated by their peers on a daily basis," Leary said. "I have witnessed peers being bullied, harassed and teased throughout the years because they are gay."
Creech said such activities normalize homosexuality.
"Christian people like myself think its a politically exploitive activity," he said.
Wight and several other principals said they have told teachers to treat it like a normal day.
Not all conservative groups agree that boycotting is the best way to handle today. Steve Noble, chairman of Called2Action, said he would encourage students to use the day as a time to evangelize classmates who are participating in the Day of Silence.
"It's a great opportunity to share your faith with people," Noble said. "They can't talk. They can only walk away."
© 2008 News & Observer