Dozens of Juneau-Douglas High School students spoke up for tolerance on Wednesday by staying silent in school.
Organizers of the "Day of Silence" at JDHS said more than 140 students took a vow of silence to echo what they said was the silence gays and lesbians must practice to escape discrimination in their school and community.
"This has been a beautiful day for me," Day of Silence organizer Coryjean Whittemore, a JDHS freshman, said Wednesday afternoon. "It was really hard for me to stay silent, but to walk the halls and see all those ribbons (signifying participants) made it all perfect."
The Day of Silence is a 6-year-old nationwide event. This was the first time it was observed at JDHS and in Alaska. Students remained silent from the start of school at 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., at which time they marched to a rally on the Capitol steps.
Students who joined the event said they were amazed by the high numbers of participants and those who were not silent but pledged support.
"It was a surprisingly large number of supporters," said sophomore Laura Webster. "We ran out of ribbons."
In class, students said they found ways to participate silently. In a French-language bingo game, silent students stood up instead of shouting bingo. In a biology class, when asked a question with a numerical answer students held up fingers.
Whittemore said it was eye-opening to go through a day without speaking.
"I have a better awareness of how people who have to be silent feel," she said. "People in my class would say something wrong or something that I wanted to respond to, but I had to be silent."
At the Capitol rally, local politicians and community members addressed the students, commending them for their willingness to speak out for tolerance for gays and lesbians.
"I am absolutely stunned and so proud of my community when I see high school students bringing this issue to the forefront," said state Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat.
There was some resistance to the event's theme at JDHS on Wednesday.
Some students wore small signs with a verse that read, "I won't be silent/I'm loud as can be/not hiding in a closet silently/Everybody shout just like me/I'm straight."
Teacher Mary-Lou Gervais, who assisted students in organizing the event, said she saw two students tearing down Day of Silence posters in the hallways. Gervais said that reiterated for her the need for more education on the issue.
"They need to practice tolerance even when they disagree," she said.
JDHS Principal Deb Morse said she felt the day had a positive result.
"I think this has caused more discussion, and discussion is good," Morse said.
Whittemore said she would like to see the Day of Silence reach a broader audience next year.
"We'd like to ... pursue it in the middle schools, go to the college (to) keep it in everybody's minds," she said.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.