As Tim Blackbear remembers that fateful Dec. 13, 1999, his daughter Brandi sat weeping as assistant principal Charlie Bushy-head told him that she was being suspended from Union Intermediate High School in Tulsa for practicing witchcraft. Blackbear says Bushy-head accused Brandi, then a ninth grader, of putting a hex on a ceramics teacher who was later hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. ” ‘We don’t condone that type of behavior,’ ” Blackbear says Bushyhead declared, grabbing Brandi’s hand and pointing to what he said was a witchcraft symbol she had drawn on her skin. “He told me, ‘We have a serious problem here with your daughter.’ ”
He got that right. On Oct. 25, Brandi Blackbear, now 16, and her parents sued in federal court, charging the school district as well as individual school officials with violating her constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion and due process. The suit also charges they conspired to violate her civil rights. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Blackbears are seeking unspecified damages for emotional injury. “She didn’t do anything wrong to anyone,” says her father. “And she was never given the choice or the chance to defend herself. All she did was go to school, check out a book [on Wicca] at the library.” Says John Mack Butler, the family’s lawyer: “If she’s got that talent [to cast spells], the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be wanting to talk to her.”
But school officials maintain Brandi wasn’t suspended for being a witch. Cathy Burden, superintendent of the 13,000-student school district, says officials are concerned about anything disruptive to “the educational smoothness of our climate, the opportunity for students to go to school without fear.” The school does not suspend students for religious views, jewelry or tattoos, Burden says. “As long as they are not threatening other students, their self-expression is guaranteed.” She declined to discuss specifics.
There is history, to be sure, behind Blackbear’s five-day suspension. In April 1999, about 10 days after the Columbine High School shootings, rumors began circulating at the Union middle school that then-eighth grader Blackbear, an aspiring writer and fan of author Stephen King, was planning to kill several fellow students. Sometime earlier, classmate Lorena Coleman, 15, says, Brandi had begun “to act weird”—dressing differently, streaking her hair red and green. “She went to séances and said she put hexes on people,” says Coleman.
According to the lawsuit, the school’s principal, Jack Ojala, searched Blackbear’s backpack for a gun and then, not finding one, confiscated her notebooks. Brandi’s parents, Tim, 42, a bread deliveryman, and Toni, 38, a cook, were summoned to the school where, they say, Ojala showed them fragments of Brandi’s fiction. “It was a story about a guy who got on the bus with a gun,” says Tim. She was suspended for 19 days, the rest of the term.
Upset that she was forced to miss so much school and that friends had begun to shun her, Blackbear hoped for a fresh start when she entered ninth grade the following fall. All went well, she says, until December, when she read a book on religions in the school library and, out of curiosity, began researching Wicca.
Ironically, Tim Blackbear, a Cherokee and a Baptist (his wife is Catholic), had moved his family from Long Island to Tulsa in 1990 because he wanted to expose Brandi and her two younger brothers, Tim, now 13, and Tony, 9, to Native American history and the relaxed pace of Oklahoma life. From an early age, Blackbear was an avid reader. “She would spend more time with a pencil or a book than playing with her dolls,” her father says. “I saw nothing wrong with that.”
Blackbear’s attorney Butler, who seeks a jury trial, says he expects the case to take up to two years to be resolved. Meanwhile, Blackbear, an average student who lives with her family in a three-bedroom apartment on the edge of the affluent school district, says that no one has bothered her at school since she filed her lawsuit. But she isn’t writing anything these days, either. “It just kind of makes me nervous,” she says. “You’ve got to feel to write, and I just don’t feel like it anymore.”
Alice Jackson Baughn in Tulsa