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Witches and wardrobes: Boy says he was suspended from school for wearing magical symbol

Wednesday, September 27, 2000

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The four young witches are sitting in the dimly lit patio of the Beehive coffeehouse on the South Side, discussing the perils of "coming out of the broom closet. "

Tannin, the pagan name of a 31-year-old witch with a soft voice and long brown hair, fingers her pentacle, the five-point star that dangles from a chain adorning her cotton top.

  Ken Scott, a Brownsville Area High School senior, says he was suspended from school because he wore his pentacle, a five-pointed star symbolic of magic. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

"I wear this [pentacle] but I hide it. There are too many Christians where I work."

Eloria Lightfeather, the witch name of a 22-year-old from Plum, wears her silver pentacle in broad daylight. But before she came out, Lightfeather says, she got harassed three years ago after wearing a witch's costume to an office Halloween party at a company in Texas.

"I got witch notes," says Lightfeather, who looks like any other coffeehouse patron in a dark green turtleneck over pants. "I got scared looks. I got confused looks. People wouldn't talk to me. I lost my job."

In front of a statue of the Virgin Mary -- mere coincidence, they say -- these women lament witch-bashing: "The Blair Witch Project," "The Craft" and other movies; children's books about toad spells.

These women say they don't believe in Satan but instead practice Wicca, an earth-based religion that stresses many deities, karmic laws and individual spiritual paths.

Their discussion is interrupted by the appearance of a 17-year-old boy with long blond hair, a lip piercing and a pewter pentacle necklace.

"Hey, Ken," the women yell exuberantly, pulling out a seat for him.

Ken Scott, a senior at Brownsville Area High School, is the special guest of this recent meeting of the Pittsburgh Pagan House Foundation. These witches and other pagans are rallying behind Scott because they think he, too, is a victim of pagan discrimination. The senior was sent home from Brownsville Area High School for one day last week for dress code violations.

Scott, who converted from Southern Baptist to Wicca, said the school administrators told him he could only wear his pentacle with fake-ruby tips to school if he hid it under his shirt. His mother, Dawn, said she was told the same thing, even though administrators insist they never said that.

"It's a little frustrating to see how close-minded people can be," Scott says to the group, which grows to about a dozen men and women.

But Brownsville Area Superintendent Gerry Grant says the discipline against Scott has nothing to do with his pentacle and everything to do with wearing torn pants and a chain and spikes on his bracelets. They also objected to Scott's Cradle of Filth death-metal T-shirt, which portrays band members with their hair twisted into horns.

"It's a dress code violation. It definitely was not religion," Grant says. "The T-shirt gave the appearance of the devil. That is offensive to other kids."

In school districts nationwide, students' individualism is running against tighter dress codes.

"Nowadays, more schools are taking a hard line and instituting dress codes," says Phil Kaplan, research director of the New Jersey-based National Clearinghouse on Satanic Crime in America. "They cannot wear certain styles of T-shirts that have offensive connotations, gang, death metal, Satan."

Even the plain white T-shirt has taken a hit. Earlier this month, Ambridge Area High School suspended 50 students for wearing underwear as outerwear. But last week, the district changed the rule and reinstated the students.

Body piercings are also taboo in some districts, including Brownsville. But Scott said his piercing under his lower lip is an expression of Wicca.

"The pierce is in remembrance of all the pagan and witch pain and suffering throughout all time and that still goes on today," says Scott, who says he has been covering his piercing with a Band-Aid.

But Grant isn't buying the idea of a religious piercing.

"I did research of Wicca online. There is nothing that says followers have pierced body parts."

It's too early to tell whether the friction between Scott and this Fayette County school district will go away or erupt into something bigger. The pagan group from Pittsburgh said it is drafting a letter to tell the district that it is unconstitutional to forbid the pentacle, whose points correspond to air, earth, fire, water and spirit. The district insists it has not put any restrictions on the pentacle.

Scott, who just moved to Brownsville from North Carolina and doesn't have many friends yet, says he just wants to wear his pentacle in peace and not become a cause. He said fellow students have encouraged him.

Even if the flap at school dies down, Scott has religious tensions within his own family. Scott, who lives with his mother, says his father disapproves of Wicca because he associates it with Satanism and devil worship. His father could not be reached for comment..

"It bothers me, the prejudice," Scott says. "A lot of people see my pentacle and associate it with satanic power. I don't even believe in Satan."

Scott says he had a pagan calling in January, but it took him months for him to get up the courage to wear his pentacle.

"At first, I got into the magical aspects," he says. "Now that I have made it my religion, I don't think I would cast any spells at all."

Some Wiccans practice magick, but they say their spells are a channeling of energy to create change in their lives, not a way to harm someone else.

Scott says he is not yet learned enough to be a witch, although he would like to be one some day. He said Wicca helped him "accept and love others. I had a lot of problems with love in general."

His mother is still a practicing Southern Baptist. Initially, she was nervous when her son starting lighting candles and doing chants and shunning God. But now she is fighting for her son. Though she says he was an honor student, he was an angry and belligerent teen-ager before he found Wicca.

"It's a 180-degree turn," says Dawn, a nurse. "He used to be very mean and rebellious. Whatever I would say, he would take the opposite. He's not mean anymore."

She is so supportive that she showed up at the pagan meeting at the Beehive, bringing along Ken's younger brother and sister, who seemed bored by the proceedings.

"You are so lucky to have a mother who is supportive," says one witch. The group usually does not invite teens to its meetings because their parents get very upset.

Not everyone thinks Wicca is so harmless.

"Wicca has been termed Satan's little white lie," says Kaplan of the National Clearinghouse on Satanic Crime. "It teeter-totters on the border of heavy occult involvement or someone who wants to act out. If it is left unchecked and the school doesn't take a zero-tolerance policy, it could flourish and blossom."

But Wendy Griffin, associate professor of women's studies at California State University in Long Beach, says Wicca is misunderstood and has nothing to do with Satan. "If you don't believe in ultimate good, you can't believe in ultimate bad."

Tannin sips herbal tea on the patio of Beehive and says the public needs to be educated about witches.

"There is so much ignorance. People have the idea that we can turn people into toads."

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