It's lunchtime at Puyallup's Emerald Ridge High School. The large cafeteria is buzzing with student chatter. Kids are grabbing food from the mall-style food court windows and sitting down with friends.

One table, however, is notably quiet. Seated closest to the door are a dozen students who aren't talking--they haven't spoken all day, in fact, and their silence has riled up the entire community. About 50 Emerald Ridge students took a vow of silence on April 10, and another 50 wore supportive ribbons. They are protesting discrimination and harassment against gay students, joining thousands of students at high schools and colleges around the country (including Seattle high schools like Garfield, Chief Sealth, and Nathan Hale). Emerald Ridge is outside of Puyallup, a few miles east of I-5 near Tacoma.

Emerald Ridge students may have had more to protest than most schools--their Day of Silence was greeted with angry comments, counterprotests, and outright harassment. It's clear from this response that Emerald Ridge has a problem with homophobia. Of 1,400 Emerald Ridge students, nearly 350 stayed at home on April 10 in a counterprotest.

The students organizing the Day of Silence heard rumors that students from other schools would be in the parking lot after classes to beat up queer students. They also heard many students refer to April 10 as "gay day" with disgust. By the time April 10 rolled around, few knew what to expect.

One student who disagreed with the Day of Silence approached the lunchroom table where protest participants sat passing out candy. He refused to accept a card that explained the Day of Silence. A biblical verse was scrawled across his shirt in handwritten blue ink: "'A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman. For it is an abomination.'--Leviticus 18:22."

When asked about the quote, the student replied simply, "I'm straight." A handful of other counterprotesters wore shirts that said "Thanks for not talking" on the front, and "Because we don't want to hear from you anyway" on the back. Before I could ask those students why they disagreed with the Day of Silence, a school district official asked me to leave--they were trying to keep the school day as normal as possible, which meant no media circus.

As he escorted me outside, Dr. Tony Apostle, director of Administrative Services for the school district, politely explained that he was keeping the school day calm in response to the weeks of parental complaints.

Indeed, offended parents filled a March 25 Puyallup School District meeting, and their complaints poured into the principal's e-mail inbox and covered the letters page of the Tacoma News Tribune. Some letter writers called homosexuality an "aberration" and scolded the school district for allowing the protest (they said that allowing the protest endorsed homosexuality), while others threatened to vote against an upcoming school levy because of the protest.

According to Terry Rhines, outreach coordinator of Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians And Gays (PFLAG), Emerald Ridge's Day of Silence provoked the largest local outcry over gay rights issues in about a decade. (In the early '90s, a local initiative succeeded in squashing the Tacoma City Council's effort to include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination policy.)

It's evident that there's a problem at Emerald Ridge--Principal Linda Quinn, who did not want to comment for this story, allowed hundreds of counterprotesting students to stay home with the permission of their parents, who were essentially signing off on their kids' bigotry.

The Day of Silence students and the counterprotesting kids who skipped school came face-to-face on the day after the protest, and tensions remained.

"In my health class someone was talking about the Day of Silence, and someone said, 'You know what we should do about those gays? We should shoot them,'" Emerald Ridge senior Rosemary Tran says. "My teacher didn't do anything about it. I got up and left."