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Central Students Use Demonstration as Learning Opportunity

Free speech and right to assembly just a couple lessons learned by group's appearance.
(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church stirs emotion anytime the group announces a public appearance.

When Central High School caught wind of their planned protest in St. Joseph, social media erupted with please to ignore the group and calls to shield students from the show.

In the end only about a half dozen protesters showed up, overwhelmed by a crowd of about 200 from the community there to support the school.

As controversial as the group's message might be, that's not the message we focused on in our coverage. Instead, it's a story inside the walls of Central that's worth our attention.

Instead of going to the books for a civics lesson, students at Central High School had their first amendment freedoms lesson brought to them.

"Specifically today we've mentioned speech, press, petition and assembly," said CHS government teacher Kris Larson.

While the Westboro Baptist Church demonstration was going on outside the school, inside there was just healthy discussion.

"We've really delved into constitutionally what can be allowed," Larson said. "I think this has been a great teaching lesson. I always like real life examples to teach the students."

Students and staff have known for more than a week about the group's plan to come to Central. There has been a lot of discussion about the church, what they represent and their rights to speak what they think. Teachers framed the talk back to freedoms and our laws.

"There are opinions that people do not agree with that are still allowed to be expressed," Larson said. "It is a testament to the type of constituion that we have."

Students enjoyed the debate.

"Some would say they are completely within the bounds of the constitution. Others disagree," said Central senior Andrew Donaldson. "It's really interesting to understand and dig into it and try to help make the constitution and government work."

"It's their right to be there and it's other people's rights to counter-protest them," said senior Tessa Tolen.

Instead of treating Westboro's appearance at the school as a distraction, teachers and students made the best of it.

"Always the best way to teach someone is to apply it to their lives," said Donaldson.

"They are phenominal kids, greeat students and great staff and they do not represent the things they espouse," Larson said.

Students said that when they first heard of the planned demonstration last week, there was a lot of talk going around the school. As the day approached, it was not as big of a deal.
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