|Brandi Blackbear says she is the victim of a modern-day witch hunt, one that raises the issue of how far schools should go to protect students and teachers from possible harm.|
Union Intermediate High School is a sprawling, beige-brick compound located in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, a fast-growing suburb of Tulsa. Built in 1989, the school for 9th and 10th graders is surrounded by newish neighborhoods with evocative names like "Berkshire," "Oak Tree Village," "Wood Creek," and "Waterford Crossing." Directly across the street is Liberty Church, which looks more like a warehouse than a place of worship, as well as an empty lot marked by a sign that reads, "Future Home of Cedar Heights Covenant Church." About a mile south of Union, at Grace Fellowship Church, Pastor Bob Yandian is putting up a new building that, when it opens next fall, will rival a big-city high school in size. And several miles to the east is the 100-acre Rhema Bible Training Center, whose enormous church puts the nearby Wal-Mart Supercenter to shame. Tulsa's most famous religious institution, Oral Roberts University, is about six miles to the west, just across the street from Victory Christian Center.
Oklahoma is Bible Belt country, and Tulsa, some say, is the buckle. Conservative Christians are a dominant force, both socially and politically. In the ongoing conflict over the proper role of religion in public schools, Tulsa—and the rest of Oklahoma, for that matter—is one of the battlefields. Although compulsory school prayer was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, Christianity remains an undeniable presence in many Tulsa-area public schools.
At Union Intermediate High, part of the Union school district that includes portions of Tulsa and Broken Arrow, many students wear WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets and T-shirts. Cedar Ridge Elementary School even has its own before-school Bible-study group. A popular annual event at Union High School is the student-led prayer meeting called "See You at the Pole," which started in Burleson, Texas, in 1990 and has since spread to schools across the country. Last September, at Union High's performing arts center, a Saturday night rally featured speakers offering prayers for teachers and students and encouraging others to make a regular practice of praying for public schools.
Superintendent Cathy Burden says her district has taken measures to ensure that teachers and administrators adhere to the law when it comes to religion and schools. "We're real sensitive to First Amendment issues around here," she says. The district, she points out, employs a resource manual titled Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education. Published by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, the handbook has been endorsed by organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition. It offers legal and practical advice for districts seeking to understand the proper role for religious expression in the public schools.
But others say the district doesn't go far enough. The Rev. Gary Blaine, minister of Tulsa's Hope Unitarian Church, claims, "There's really a lot of pressure put on the kids to conform to the status quo." And the status quo, he contends, is an "aggressive fundamentalism."
Brandi Blackbear was not part of the status quo at Union Intermediate High. Although baptized as a Catholic, she didn't go to church, and she was intrigued by Wicca. An increasingly popular nature-based religion, Wicca takes its name from the Old English word for wizard. Followers call themselves Wiccans or Witches (as opposed to the more generic "witches"), and they practice a form of magic. When Brandi was in 8th grade, she and her friend Justin found a book on religion in the school library with a section on Wicca, and out of curiosity, they read up on the subject.
Two years later, Brandi claims she is the victim of a modern-day witch hunt, one that raises the issue—now debated nationwide—of how far a school should go to protect its students and teachers from possible harm. As the result of two run-ins with Union administrators, Brandi and her parents, Tim and Toni Blackbear, are suing the district with help from the ACLU. They claim that Brandi's civil rights were violated when she was accused by school officials not only of being a witch, but of casting a spell that resulted in a teacher's illness.
Sitting at a large conference table in the office of their lawyer, John Mack Butler, the Blackbears come across as a typical working-class family, albeit one that's reluctantly in the spotlight.
Tim, a full-blooded Cherokee and Oklahoma native, is 42 years old. He works as a deliveryman for the Wonder Bread company. Toni, 38, is originally from Patchogue, New York, a blue-collar town on the south shore of Long Island. She works as a cook at a local racetrack. Brandi, who is shy and somewhat awkward, is wearing jeans and a bulky blue nylon jacket over a black T-shirt. When she speaks, she tends to stare at the table. A big man with longish black hair and dark-brown eyes, Tim does most of the talking. He's protective of his daughter—he calls her "his baby"—which isn't surprising, given the controversial nature of the lawsuit and the publicity it has attracted.
‘She's an average student, a sweet little girl who was singled out by a few individuals, and they reacted overzealously and wrong.’
"Brandi isn't a troublesome student," her father says. "She's never late for school. She had never missed school at all since the 2nd or 3rd grade until this started. She always enjoyed going to school. She's not a valedictorian, and she's not the worst student in class. She's an average student, a sweet little girl who was singled out by a few individuals, and they reacted overzealously and wrong."
According to the Blackbears, this is what happened: On Monday, December 13, 1999, Brandi, then 15 and a 9th grader at Union Intermediate High, learned that her ceramics teacher, Kyle Kemp, had gone to the emergency room sometime over the weekend for an undisclosed ailment. Brandi told her friend Justin about Kemp's absence, to which the boy jokingly replied: "Well, you know about Wicca. You probably put a spell on him."
"Yeah, right, I did that," Brandi remembers saying.
"She's an average student, a sweet
little girl," Tim Blackbear says of his daughter.
Brandi insists she was just joking around. She says she's not a Wiccan, and she denies trying to cast a spell on anyone, least of all Kemp, who was one of her favorite teachers. (Wiccans do cast spells, but not for evil purposes. "You are not a real Witch if you hurt anybody," says Silver RavenWolf, the author of several books on Wicca.)
Nonetheless, by the time Brandi went to her ceramics class, where a substitute was filling in for Kemp, the rumors were spinning out of control. "The whole class was sitting there telling me that I had put a spell on Mr. Kemp," she says. "I said, 'No, I didn't,' and they said, 'We don't believe you.' It was a mess. Some people sat there and accused me of killing him. And I was like, 'He's not dead.' " (Kemp had reportedly gone to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.)
Eventually, the rumors reached the main office. At the end of the day, Brandi was told to report to guidance counselor Sandi Franklin's office. When she got there, Brandi claims she was interrogated by Franklin and assistant principal Charles Bushyhead, who, Brandi recalls, demanded to know if she was a Wiccan.
At first, she said no. "But he asked me again and again until I finally said yes," she recalls. "I wanted him to stop. I just wanted to get out of there."
Meanwhile, Brandi's parents were notified. Tim, who was the first to arrive, recalls being told by Bushyhead: "We have a situation here with your daughter. She's been going around telling people that she cast a spell on Mr. Kemp. That creates a problem for us at the school. We don't condone that type of behavior."
Tim was flabbergasted. As far as he knew, Brandi wasn't into Wicca, and even if she were, he didn't see what business that was of the assistant principal. "I said: 'Where are you getting this? Do you hear what you're saying to me?'"
As Tim remembers it, Bushyhead held up Brandi's hand, on which she had drawn a star with a circle around it, and said: "This is a Wiccan pentagram. This shows me that she is studying witchcraft." A pentagram (known to Wiccans as a "pentacle") is indeed a symbol of witchcraft, but Brandi says she drew it simply because she was bored. "I had also drawn a smiley face on my hand," she adds.
But as far as Tim was concerned, Bushyhead was using the symbol as proof that Brandi was a witch. "There wasn't any, 'Do you believe this?' or 'Is this possible?' Without a doubt, he had already decided what the facts were."
And so, at the end of the meeting, the Blackbears were told that Brandi was being suspended from school for five days, starting immediately, to be followed by 10 days of in-school suspension. The official reason: She had disrupted the school process.
"I felt that I hadn't done anything wrong," Brandi recalls, "and that I didn't deserve to be treated this way." Her parents agreed. Tim says: "I told her, 'You didn't do anything wrong, I know you didn't.' And I told her we would figure out a way to take care of it."
When Brandi returned to school following her suspension, the name-calling began. "Here comes the witch," students would say as she walked down the hall. "Watch out, she'll put a spell on you."
"She'd come home from school upset," her father says, "but Brandi's a very strong girl."
She must be. Because, as the Blackbears now allege, Brandi had been targeted by another school administration a year earlier. For the Blackbears, in fact, the Union Intermediate High debacle was, in Yogi Berra's famous words, "like déjà vu all over again."
The first incident took place at the Union 8th Grade Center in April 1999, just days after the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Brandi, at the time, loved to write stories. She filled notebook after notebook with fiction, which she modeled after the work of her favorite author, Stephen King. In one of her stories, just four or five sentences long, a boy with a gun boards a school bus and confronts a girl. "After what happened at Columbine," Brandi says, "I just wanted to write a story kind of like that."
But a friend who heard about the story started telling other students that Brandi had put together a "hit list" with the names of students she intended to harm. It wasn't long, Brandi says, before school officials were searching her locker and backpack, looking for evidence. When they found the story, they concluded that she was a threat to the school and suspended her for the remainder of the year.
The Blackbears, of course, were outraged, but Tim says that when he tried to discuss the matter with the school's administration, he was shuffled from office to office and never given a straight answer. He still hasn't seen a copy of the story. "They told me they would get it back to me," Tim recalls, "but they never did."
When Brandi returned to school in the fall—she was now at Union Intermediate High—the students turned against her. "They were making fun of her," Tim says, "asking her if they were on her 'hit list.' They totally isolated her. Her friends from 8th grade would have nothing to do with her. She was all alone." As a result, Tim says, Brandi's grades began to suffer.
|When Brandi returned to school following her suspension, the name-calling began. ‘Here comes the witch,’ students would say.|
At the urging of a friend, Tim contacted the Oklahoma chapter of the ACLU, in Oklahoma City. While the organization contemplated filing a lawsuit, Brandi was suspended for the second incident. That was the clincher, says Joann Bell, executive director of the state's ACLU chapter. "We thought there were some good First Amendment issues involved," she says, "or rather, bad violations of the First Amendment, whichever way you want to look at it." She brought in John Mack Butler, a prominent Tulsa civil rights attorney who decided to roll both incidents into one lawsuit.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa, alleges that school officials violated Brandi's constitutional rights of due process, privacy, and freedom of speech. It also accuses the district of attempting "to suppress any religious inclination toward or expression of the religion of Wicca" by Brandi and of attempting "to force certain religious concepts" on the girl. As a result of the district's actions, the suit alleges, Brandi "has suffered continuous ridicule and humiliation from other students." The ACLU is seeking an undisclosed amount of punitive and financial damages on behalf of the Blackbears, an injunction preventing the school from banning any non-Christian religious paraphernalia, and an order expunging Brandi's school record.
On October 26, 2000, the day the lawsuit was filed, the ACLU held a press conference in front of the U.S. courthouse in downtown Tulsa. "These outlandish accusations have made Brandi Blackbear's life unbearable," Bell stated. "I, for one, would like to see the so-called evidence this school has that a 15-year-old girl made a grown man sick by casting a magic spell." And Butler added, "This is taking us back to the Salem witch-burning times."
Filed five days before Halloween, the suit—and Brandi's story—made headlines in the United States and abroad. People magazine blared: "Witch Is It? Brandi Blackbear says she was suspended from her Tulsa school for witchcraft. The school says nonsense." The London daily the Independent opted for the feisty "Brandi, the Teenage Witch." Even Jay Leno joked about the case during one of his Tonight Show monologues.
But to the Blackbears, it's no laughing matter.
"I want to defend my daughter because she didn't do anything wrong," Tim says. "And whatever it takes to get the school to admit that they were wrong, that's what we'll do."
Officials from the Union school district have said little about the case. Cathy Burden, the superintendent, reports that she and the other administrators named in the lawsuit have been told not to comment by the district's lawyer, J. Douglas Mann, who did not return calls for this article. She insists, however, that the district did nothing wrong.
"There would not have been a suspension if there hadn't been a violation of school policy," she offers as a general explanation. "And we don't have a school policy that addresses witches. We have a school policy that addresses threats and disruptions to the educational environment. . . . If a student threatens another student or if they make lists suggesting that they're going to hurt other students, then we take that very seriously. And we will punish or discipline that student, and it has nothing to do with their religious preference."
Burden admits the district takes a hard line on discipline. Students are expected to follow the rules spelled out in great detail in handbooks distributed at the beginning of each school year. One catch-all policy states that any student who creates a disturbance that "interferes with or disrupts the normal educational process . . . will be subject to disciplinary action." Another warns that threats, whether verbal or written, "will not be tolerated."
Five days before Halloween, the
Blackbears' lawyer invoked the Salem witch trials.
—A. Cuervo/Tulsa World
Although Burden won't discuss the case in detail, a court document filed in response to the Blackbears' allegations offers a glimpse at the district's version of events. After administrators at the Union 8th Grade Center were told that Brandi might be the author of a hit list, they called in her parents and asked them if her backpack could be searched, according to the document. "Mr. and Mrs. Blackbear agreed," it continues. "Mr. Blackbear and Mr. Ojala [the school's assistant principal] then examined the contents of Brandi's backpack and found some notes which supported the accusations against Brandi."
But Brandi says her backpack had been searched, without her knowledge, several days before. When she was called into the office, she adds, "they had my spiral notebooks already in the room. They had had them there for a few days, and I didn't notice that they had been missing."
As for the incident at Union Intermediate High, the court document confirms that Bushyhead, the assistant principal, identified the pentagram on Brandi's hand and that she told him "she had seen the design in the book about Wicca she claimed to have read, did not know what the symbol was, but liked it." According to the document, Brandi then was suspended "because of her actions," though what exactly those actions were is not made clear.
The Blackbears' lawsuit claims that Bushyhead told Brandi that she was not allowed to wear any kind of emblem or paraphernalia even remotely related to the Wicca religion. Burden insists, however, that students in the Union district "can and do wear their religious insignias on their sweat shirts, on their bodies, on their jewelry, or on anything else. There's no prohibition against that whatsoever."
So if the Blackbears' version of what happened is accurate, Bushyhead may well have crossed the line.
Ever since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's rampage at Columbine High School, many districts have adopted zero-tolerance policies regarding threats of violence from students. As a consequence, Bell of the ACLU says, some students' civil rights have been trampled on. "We understand the importance of school safety," she says, "but people have a right to walk around freely without being harassed."
In recent months, the ACLU has defended several students who were suspended for writing stories or journal entries that contained scenes of violence. The civil liberties group even has a name for the trend: "post-Columbine hysteria."
In Johnston, Rhode Island, for example, 11th grader Matthew Parent gave his English teacher several pages from his "free write" journal for extra credit. Those pages eventually made their way to the school's psychologist and social worker, who determined that Matthew would be a "safety issue" were he to remain in school. Their reasoning: the "suicidality, homicidality, mood concerns, . . . delusions of grandeur and narcissistic themes" found in his writings. Matthew, an A student, was suspended and told he would not be allowed to return until he underwent a psychological evaluation. His attorney charges that school officials "totally failed to distinguish between a student who is a danger and a student who is different, extremely bright, and imaginative."
There are other examples. Last year, a student in Boston was suspended from school for writing a disturbing horror story in English class, and in Arkansas, a letter that was deemed a "terroristic threat" got another student expelled. Just before Christmas, a 17-year-old boy in Morristown, New Jersey, was arrested and accused of distributing a manuscript that included passages about killing faculty and students. "He's not a violent person," his mother said at the time. "His outlet is his writing."
Such incidents may disturb civil libertarians, but school administrators feel they simply are being prudent. Better to err on the side of caution, they say, than to risk another Columbine, which some believe could have been prevented if school authorities had paid heed to warning signs.
‘I, for one, would like to see the so-called evidence this school has that a 15-year-old girl made a grown man sick by casting a magic spell.’
Even before the Columbine shootings, the U.S. Department of Education published a school-safety guide, which lists early warning signs of danger, including the "expression of violence in writings and drawings." However, the guide cautions that "many children produce work about violent themes that for the most part is harmless when taken in context." In all cases, schools should seek the opinion of a professional—a psychologist or a mental health specialist for instance. Otherwise, the guide states, "there is a real danger that early signs will be misinterpreted." Elsewhere, the guide makes clear that "early warning signs should not be used as a rationale to exclude, isolate, or punish a child."
Taking a different tack, the National School Safety Center, based in California, publishes a "Checklist of Characteristics of Youth Who Have Caused School-Associated Violent Deaths." Some of the 20 items listed, such as "[student] has previously brought a weapon to school," are obvious. But others are more subjective, particularly, "[student] prefers reading materials dealing with violent themes, rituals, and abuse" and "[student] reflects anger, frustration, and the dark side of life in school essays or writing projects." One can imagine a well-intentioned teacher or principal using such a list to implicate a student who likes to read books by, say, Stephen King, or, for that matter, Edgar Allan Poe.
Jon Katz, a journalist who passionately defends the rights of "geeks, nerds, and dorks" on the Web site Slashdot ("News for nerds. Stuff that matters"), has railed against buying into the recent crackdown on student expression. Several months after the Columbine incident took place, he told a reporter: "A lot of educators feel that the safest thing to do is to take every utterance seriously and, if a kid says anything even remotely off-color, suspend them or even throw them in jail. That way, if anything happens, you're covered."
For this article, Katz, who is also author of Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho, was reached by e-mail. He writes: "Our culture has gone to war against kids who are in some way different, not mainstream or 'normal.' Since this is often the case with bright and creative people, it has especially tragic consequences for this vulnerable group of kids, who should be nurtured and taught and protected, rather than attacked, sued, suspended, and arrested."
Brandi seems to prove Katz's point. Until recently, when Seventeen magazine asked her to write about her experience, she had all but stopped writing. "It just kind of makes me nervous," she told People. "You've got to feel to write, and I just don't feel like it anymore."
And what about Brandi's interest in Wicca? Did that get her into trouble?
The Blackbears argue that Charles Bushyhead's interrogation of Brandi regarding her Wiccan beliefs was a form of harassment, one that violated her constitutional rights. While the Supreme Court has made it clear that schools may not sponsor or organize religious activities, students are allowed to express their religious faiths in schools in a number of ways. They're free to pray alone or even in groups, as long as the activity does not infringe upon the rights of others. They may wear religious garb or display religious messages on their clothes. And schools must not allow students to be harassed for their religious views.
"I think the district overreacted," the Rev. Gary Blaine says of the Union Intermediate High incident. "If she had a pentagram on her hand, personally, I think it's her right to bear that religious symbol. I don't believe in paganism, I'm not a pagan, but I believe in her right as a religious person to wear the same symbols of her faith as Jews and Christians do. So if that was an issue, it was a fatal mistake on the part of the school district."
Blaine, who helped form the Tulsa Task Force on Religious Freedom, was so outraged by the incident that he sent a letter to the Tulsa World, the city's daily newspaper. "If school administrators saw a connection between the alleged hex and the teacher's illness," he wrote, "they only affirmed the power of Wicca. Who in this case needs to demonstrate some common sense and maturity?"
To be sure, Wicca is a hot topic these days, in Tulsa and elsewhere. Many fundamentalist Christians see the practice as nothing more than a New Age version of Satanism, and they warn against its pernicious influence. The Cult Awareness Network lists Wicca on its catalog of "Controversial Groups," which includes such organizations as the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology.
But the U.S. military's handbook for chaplains states: "Wiccans do not in any way worship or believe in 'Satan,' 'the Devil,' or any similar entities. They point out that 'Satan' is a symbol of rebellion against and inversion of the Christian and Jewish traditions. Wiccans do not revile the Bible. They simply regard it as one among many of the world's mythic systems, less applicable than some to their core values, but still deserving just as much respect as any of the others."
|More and more teenagers—girls in particular—are turning to Wicca to fulfill their spiritual needs.|
Wiccans say they have long been harassed for their views. Just recently, a North Carolina high school teacher was escorted off campus by officials and suspended indefinitely when it was learned she was a practicing Wiccan. The teacher said she did not talk to her students about Wicca but disclosed her religious beliefs to administrators after a reporter asked her about a Wicca-related Web site maintained by her husband.
In 1998, a 17-year-old high school honor student in Detroit was told that she could not wear a pentagram, even though the girl was a practicing Wiccan. Pentagrams, along with vampire makeup and black nail polish, were prohibited under the school's anti-gang policy. With help from the ACLU, the girl sued, and the district later amended its policy.
Despite such incidents, Wicca has entered the mainstream. In the January issue of the Atlantic Monthly, writer Charlotte Allen describes Wicca as "the fastest-growing religion in America," with, according to one estimate, more than 200,000 adherents in the United States. Wiccans, Allen writes, "tend to be white, middle-class, highly educated, and politically involved in liberal and environmental causes." Some Wiccans call themselves Witches, but they "neither worship Satan nor practice the sort of malicious magic traditionally associated with witches."
Wicca is also the subject of dozens of books, including the bestseller Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation, by Wiccan Priestess Silver RavenWolf. The book's cover features five clean-cut teenagers in miniskirts, blue jeans, and pentagrams. Inside, RavenWolf describes Wicca as "a nature-based, life-affirming religion that follows a moral code and seeks to build harmony among people and empower the self and others." Wiccans, she writes, "commune with streams, sky, fire, trees, animals, and rocks, much like the indigenous ancestors of America. We see everything on our planet as a manifestation of the Divine."
More and more teenagers—girls in particular—are turning to Wicca to fulfill their spiritual needs. Wiccan Web sites thrive on the Internet, and many of them have pages specifically for teens. Television shows like Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, have only fueled adolescent interest in Wicca and witchcraft. One episode of Charmed was even titled "Something Wicca This Way Comes."
It's hardly surprising, then, that a girl like Brandi would be curious about the topic. "It just seemed interesting," she says. And even though she claims her fascination with Wicca has waned, her case has become a cause célèbre among real Wiccans. Her story has made the rounds on the Internet, and at least one Wiccan has circulated a petition protesting Brandi's treatment by Union school officials.
"I even had a phone call from someone in California who wanted Brandi to come out there and heal her," says her mother, Toni, laughing at such nonsense. "She wasn't joking. She said that someone had put a hex on her, and she wanted Brandi to lift the spell. She offered to pay her expenses."
John Mack Butler, the Blackbears' attorney, thinks it may take up to two years for Brandi Blackbear vs. Union Public School Independent District No. 9 to make its way through the court system. That is, unless the district decides to settle before it goes to trial. Joann Bell of the ACLU says she hopes that happens, "but it looks like they're going to dig their heels in on this one."
Tim Blackbear admits that the publicity surrounding the case has been stressful for his family. His phone hasn't stopped ringing since the press conference last October. "I didn't know my caller ID box went up to 50," he says. "I've tried to talk to everyone, but when you get phone call after phone call, it's tough. You just try to do what you can. But it all wears on you. As a bread man, I don't have time for much of anything."
Tim says he and his wife thought long and hard before filing the lawsuit. They were especially concerned about the effect it might have on their sons, 14-year-old Timmy and 9-year-old Tony. (Next year, Timmy will attend Union 8th Grade Center, where Charles Bushyhead is now principal.) In the end, however, they decided to go ahead. It was a matter of principle.
"The biggest thing that swayed us was the fact that Brandi didn't do anything wrong," he explains. "She shouldn't be treated this way. And it was the only way that we were going to be able to defend her in her eyes. If we just let it go and did nothing, we would be as wrong as the people who were accusing her. If we go through this whole thing and lose, then that's the chance we're taking. But I want Brandi to know that I, as her father, did everything I could to defend her."