More than 250 people gathered at the southeast corner of the Gunn High School campus in Palo Alto Friday morning (Jan. 29) in opposition to five demonstrators from the Westboro Baptist Church -- a controversial religious organization and picketing group from Topeka, Kansas -- who were conducting a protest across from the school on Arastradero Road.
The counter-protesters were primarily Gunn students, teachers and parents, but students from Saratoga, Menlo-Atherton and Mountain View high schools attended the rally as well, Gunn principal Noreen Likins said.
"It's really uplifting to see the huge outpouring of support for each other ... I'm very proud," Likins said.
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) chose to protest at Gunn because of the recent suicides of several Gunn students and alumni, Margie Phelps, one of the picketers, said.
"We came to tell these children that they've been lied to and that's why they're jumping in front of trains," Phelps said.
Phelps' husband Fred Phelps, the founder and leader of WBC, did not attend the protest.
Some attendees of the counter-protest were surprised by its size. Bertie Cannon, a recent Gunn graduate, "didn't expect everybody to be here" after receiving e-mails describing changed plans and rumors of the counter-protest's cancellation from current Gunn students.
Tomas Cardoso, a Gunn senior, agreed.
"I thought there were going to be less people and more of (the WBC)," he said.
Despite the protest's size, no physical altercations occurred. Several groups of students crossed the street to photograph and pose in front of the picketers, but most remained within the boundaries outlined by a team of Gunn teachers and staff members.
Palo Alto police Lt. Sandra Brown said "everything went relatively smoothly," and although there was a lot of yelling back and forth across Arastradero, overall the event was "relatively peaceful, just a lot of singing, a lot of signs," Brown said.
"It was good nobody was violent, because violence begets violence. We're pretty happy. It was good," Cannon said.
The school's start time had been pushed back about an hour so most students would not be disrupted by the protesters, according to district officials.