Archives For bullying

In February 2014, the Tempest Smith Foundation (TSF) will be holding its very last ConVocation fundraiser before permanently closing its doors. Annette Crossman, TSF’s current executive director and widow of founder Denessa Smith, says that it is “time for the torch to be passed on …and return to normal life.” For over ten years, TSF has been a voice for diversity tolerance in its Michigan community and an advocate of anti-bullying campaigns.

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Launched in 2003, The Tempest Smith Foundation was the brain-child of Denessa Smith, the mother of bullying-victim Tempest Smith. In February of 2001, Tempest committed suicide after enduring 6 years of persistent abuse in school.  Over the following two years Denessa was able to transform her grief into building a foundation that would advocate for tolerance – a foundation that might save other children from her daughter’s fate.

Annette Crossman

Annette Crossman

Looking back at Tempest’s life, Annette remembers a child with an “old soul.” She was a natural flute player who loved writing poetry. At the age of five, Annette recalls Tempest wanting to “give thanks to the Goddess.” The Smith-Crossman family was not Pagan and had no Pagan friends. When asked how she knew about the Goddess, Tempest responded, “I just know.”

When Tempest was older, she began asking for Pagan books. Finally Denessa purchased one from a local metaphysical shop. After reading the book herself, Denessa became comfortable with her daughter’s growing interest.  Annette admits to being less open and a bit nervous with a “witchcraft” book in the house.  However, she eventually read it and realized that Wicca was a recognized Earth-based religion.  Annette says, “I was a raised a hippie kid. I got it.”  The book was expressing everything that she had learned within a different theological context.  She adds:

I did more homework and I became educated. I was OK with it because I believed in Tempest.  I believed in what she believed. 

Unfortunately, this only tells part of Tempest’s story.  From the beginning of grade school Tempest was the victim of bullying. Long before she flirted with a gothic clothing-style or openly discussed Pagan concepts, she was harassed by her peers at school. As early as first grade, Tempest was teased for being the daughter of a lesbian couple.  She was also teased about her mother’s weight. Throughout elementary school, Tempest was an easy target for abuse.

Tempest Smith

Tempest Smith

At the end of 5th grade, Tempest begged to go to private school. Not realizing the full scope of the problem, Denessa and Annette agreed to send Tempest to a private music academy after a year or two of public middle school. Unfortunately, that day would never come.

In middle school, the bullying only intensified. New kids joined the old ones.  At this point, the bullying began to refocus on Tempest’s interest in Paganism. Annette remembers one occasion where her daughter came running home from school with her face and body beaten and slashed.  Taking matters into her own hands, Annette grabbed Tempest and returned to the school.  She directly confronted the girl who had done this to her daughter.

tempestmainpageBut the problems persisted.  Later that year, a group of girls encircled Tempest in a hallway, called her a witch and chanted “Jesus loves you.”  A teacher saw this happening and did nothing to stop it.  When Denessa and Annette confronted this teacher, she called Tempest “a cry baby.”  The distressed mothers did all they could.  Even with that they were unaware of how deeply Tempest was experiencing this pain.  The women never expected what was to come.

Early one cold February morning Tempest ate breakfast and then went back to her room to finish getting ready for school.  When it was time to leave, Annette called her downstairs. Tempest didn’t respond.  After a few minutes, Annette went upstairs to get her.  She was not prepared for what was behind the closed door. Tempest had hung herself.

A few hectic days later, Denessa and Annette found Tempest’s private journal tucked into a hideaway drawer in her desk.  The notebook was a log of years of abuse including names and dates.  Together the women read its contents.  Annette says, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Shortly after Tempest’s memorial and The Detroit News* ran the story, there was an unexpected outpouring of support from the local Michigan Pagan community.  Annette says “I was amazed by the outreach. I had never seen such kindness in my life.”  Pagan groups and individuals sent them food, money, cards and flowers. These people were to become instrumental in supporting Denessa in the building of the Tempest Smith Foundation.

By 2002 the Police investigations were over and the lawsuit against the Lincoln Park School system had settled out of court.  Denessa was ready to refocus her energy.  She turned to the Federation of Covens and Solitaries (FOCAS) and the Magickal Educational Council.  With their help and others, Denessa built her new foundation for tolerance. The opening ceremony was held at ConVocation in 2003.  Two of its organizers, Oberon Osiris and Banshee of the Circle of Wondrous Stories stated:

The ritual… drew over 100 people. (Witches, Pagans, Tempest’s doctors, Denessa’s lawyers, journalists, and Denessa’s friends and family). It was a cathartic experience for many of those present. (See Full Statement Here)

Oberon Osiris and Banshee

Oberon Osiris and Banshee

In the coming years, Denessa raised money to support her personal outreach efforts.  She spoke at schools throughout Michigan and Ohio.  She shared her story at local events such as the Wyandotte street fair. She partnered with non-profit, good-will organizations such as Gift of Life and sponsored community functions like “Tie-Dye for Tolerance.”  Denessa became the local voice of diversity tolerance.

Unfortunately TSF’s momentum was abruptly cut short in the summer of 2008.  Three years earlier Denessa had gastric-bypass surgery after which she lost an extraordinary amount of weight.  By 2008 she needed a skin-reduction operation. In August Denessa went back into the hospital for that surgery.  Within a few days of the operation she became terribly ill.  Her intestines had unexpectedly twisted causing her to become septic.  Eight days later she was gone.

Annette was devastated and “mentally-beat down.”  Not only was the foundation in full swing, the couple had just begun the process of opening a small business.  With the support of friends, family and the Pagan community, Annette kept on going. She became TSF’s executive director and within a year was co-owner of a successful store, Total Health Foods.

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Denessa Smith

Before passing away, Denessa’s dream was to award TSF college scholarships. The recipient would be chosen through a contest in which students would submit a 300 word essay on the meaning of “tolerance.”  Annette fulfilled this goal.  Since 2010, TSF has given out 6 $500 dollar scholarships to Michigan high school seniors.  At ConVocation 2014, TSF will award three more scholarships – its last action before closing down operation.

For Annette personally, it is time to move on or as she says, “pass the torch.”  She quickly adds that Denessa and Tempest “left her with a great gift – John, Denessa’s son.”  Their memory lives in him.

It also lives in the enduring legacy left by the Tempest Smith Foundation.  Twelve years of Tempest’s life transformed into twelve years of being the voice and face of tolerance.  Her story has been recounted in many books (e.g. Bullying in American Schools by Ann Garrett) on bullying and Paganism (e.g. Wicca for Couples by A.J. Drew.) It has been told time and time again over the internet.  As a result of Denessa’s work and others like her, schools across the countries have implemented aggressive anti-bullying measures, protocols, and tolerance clubs.  Local governments are now offering training for parents, counselors, administrators and teachers.

Recently a young woman approached Annette in her store.  At first Annette did not recognize the young woman. But after saying her name, Annette knew exactly who she was.  Here was the girl that physically abused Tempest in Middle school.  She had come to apologize and say that both the confrontation and Tempest’s suicide had completely changed her life.  After years of therapy, this young woman had become a counselor specifically for young victims of bullying.

The torch has been passed.

 

* The original story, “Teasing and Taunting led a girl to suicide” by George Hunter ran on March 7, 2001 and is available through the Detroit News archives.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

XKCD by Randall Munroe

XKCD by Randall Munroe

  • Considering how many times Wicca has been called the “fastest growing religion in America,” by both supporters and detractors, the latest XKCD comic reminds us to not get too wrapped up with the numbers, because they can be deceptive.
  • At Religion Dispatches John Morehead writes about Burning Man, and the fear it generates of an “alternative Pagan social order.” Quote: “For evangelicals like Matthews, Burning Man embodies deep-seated fears which can also be seen playing out in other aspects of American culture. Many conservatives fear that America is undergoing decay, and this is taking place in the spiritual realm as well. A lingering economic malaise, coupled with our continued cultural fascination with apocalyptic scenarios, provides a context in which Burning Man functions as a Rorschach test.” The whole thing is worth a read.
  • The University of Texas at Austin has published a new psychology study in the June issue of Child Development that shows a “reliance on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, often increases rather than declines with age.” Study lead author Cristine Legare noted that “the data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education or technology.” 
  • The Americans United Wall of Separation blog critiques efforts by Focus on the Family (FOF) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to carve out exceptions for religious bullying at public schools. Quote: It attempts to carve out an exemption for protected “religious” bullying. In several states, Religious Right groups have attempted to exempt bullying and verbal harassment based on sincere religious beliefs. In other words, a fundamentalist Christian kid can harass a gay student as much as he wants as along as he sincerely believes what he is saying. Some yardstick there!” You can read the FOF-ADF document, here.
  • A married couple’s strife leads to arson, and hospitalization for both. Both admit on the record to having marital issues, yet the headline, and part of the article, is about how the wife believes in Voodoo due to past instances where she called the police with, quote, “bizarre accusations.” There doesn’t seem to be anything Voodoo related with this incident, so why include in the headline? Seems prejudicial to the wife, and distorts what could be a tragic, and sadly common, case of domestic violence escalated to extreme levels.
  • Rev Dr Peter Mullen must live a small, sad, life. How else can you turn watching the opening of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics into a concern-trolling editorial about how we’re descending into Paganism? Quote: “But then I looked further and thought, at least, that I glimpsed a little of what this confusion says about modern society. We are indeed eclectic. And the old word for this, when applied to widely held beliefs and practical behaviour was “paganism” – the worship of many gods: that mountain of confusion classically represented by the panoply of argumentative deities on Olympus. Only an eclectic contemporary paganism could allow the godless Big Bang to walk hand in hand with the sacred flame.” Seriously. Can someone take this guy out to a movie or something?
  • The Republican National Convention is now over, and I know everyone wants to talk about Clint Eastwood’s interview with Invisible Obama, but I wanted to point out this exploration of Tuesday night’s closing invocation by Samuel Rodriguez, a member of the radical spiritual warriors of the New Apostolic Reformation. Quote: “Blessing the convention was National Hispanic Leadership Conference President Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who has served as an apostle in C. Peter Wagner’s International Coalition of Apostles and has extensive ties to Wagner’s movement.” I’ve covered this movement quite a bit over the years, and their ascendancy/integration within the Religious Right is troubling for those hoping for a “big tent” religious conservatism, or a more moderate conservative Christianity.
  • Erynn Rowan Laurie, author of “A Circle of Stones” recently completed a pilgrimage to Ireland, and she has posted the first installment of her write-up. Quote: “Our visit to both of the wells was held in a deluge. I think every well we visited while we were in Ireland, with the exception of Brigid’s Well in Mullingar, was rained on. We certainly connected with the watery side of Brigid’s powers during our pilgrimage! Prayers were offered for Brigid’s blessing on our work, offerings were made, and intentions set in the pouring rain. I remembered all my friends and the folks who had donated to my travel funds for the pilgrimage at her well, offering prayers for them, as well.” I look forward to future installments!
Northumberlandia (Banks Mining/PA)

Northumberlandia (Banks Mining/PA)

  • We carved and shaped a giant goddess image into the earth, but please don’t think it’s Pagan, says a spokesperson. ”Northumberlandia is just a lady, she doesn’t represent anything, but I think it’s understandable that people have their own interpretations.” Chas Clifton retorts: “Check back at one of the quarter or cross-quarter days.”
  • For those inspired by Aristophanes classic play Lysistrata, you might wonder, do sex strikes really work? Slate.com says “yes,” but mostly as way to draw attention to an issue. Quote: “The Togolese group cites as its inspiration a strike organized in 2003 by a women’s peace group to encourage the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. (The effort was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.) Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace did force an end to the war, but their tactics were more complicated than a simple sex strike: They also staged sit-ins and mass demonstrations, which were arguably far more effective than the sex strike. Leymah Gbowee, the leader of the peace group, wrote in her memoir that the months-long sex strike had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention. Until today, nearly 10 years later, whenever I talk about the Mass Action, “What about the sex strike?” is the first question everyone asks.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Just a few quick news notes for you on this Saturday.

Wiccan Murderer Sentenced: The sensationalism-drenched case of Angela Sanford, a Wiccan who killed Joel Levya in what some media described as a ritualistic sacrifice, has finally come to an end.  Sanford plead no contest to second-degree murder in August, and was today sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“Angela Sanford was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Friday for her connection to the death of Joel Leyva back in March 2010. Sanford, 31, said she was afraid Leyva, 52, would rape her so she convinced him to have sex with her and then she later stabbed him in the head, neck and stomach a total of 13 times.”

Sanford originally said the killing was in self-defense against an attempted rape, but that story soon unraveled as the details didn’t fit, and her cell phone listed Levya’s number under “sacrifice.” What really sparked Sanford to violently murder this man still remains unknown.

Wiccan Teen Attacked: A New Mexico teen made the local news when a fellow student attacked him with pine-cones after he stated his desire to become Wiccan.

“Officers were dispatched to the Aggie Express on Monday at 4:20 p.m., where the alleged victim, 14, said he had gotten off the school bus and was talking to another boy about a book he had, “Protecting Your Teen from Today’s Witchcraft: A Parent’s Guide to Confronting Wicca and the Occult.” The alleged victim said he “recently has chosen to change religions to Wicca and the book was given to his dad by a friend of his dad’s,” according to the police report. After the second boy looked at the book briefly, he allegedly threw the book, called it “satanic” “and then picked up pine cones and started to throw them” at the complainant, who reported being hit several times in the arms.”

So why was this seemingly random bullying event covered by the local news, it seems because a man was sentenced to 4 days of prison and a year of probation for throwing a pine cone at a police officer this past Summer. In any case, this is a perfect example of how anti-Pagan propaganda gets distributed, and how Pagan/Wiccan teens can face harassment for their choices.

Lighting Up Stonehenge: English Heritage and Druid leader King Arthur Pendragon (no, not that Arthur Pendragon) are often at odds over the proper way to preserve Stonehenge, but they agree on one thing, lighting up the prehistoric monument would be a bad idea.

Senior Druid, King Arthur Pendragon, said it would “detract from the very purpose of Stonehenge”. English Heritage, which manages the site, said it could be a distraction for nearby traffic. [...]  “It’s not designed to be illuminated at night and in my opinion it smacks of theme park Stonehenge which is everything I stand against.”

Meanwhile, archaeologists now think the site could have been a place for “sun worship” well before the stones were erected. Oh, and the Olympic torch will pass by the site.

That’s all I have for the moment, have a great day!

 

Just a few quick news notes for you on this Saturday.

Hinduism in Africa: The Times of India reports on the rapid growth of Hinduism in Ghana and neighboring Togo, exploding from just small group in the 1970s to between 2000 and 3000 families today. How did Hinduism grow in Ghana, which is 70% Christian? Through example.

“We have not achieved this through the winning of souls as other religions do, but have attracted people into the practice of Hinduism simply by the lives we lead,” [Kwesi Anamoah] said, adding: “Our lives shine in the community to attract people.” [...] “We do not evangelise like other faiths do, but we have attracted people because they see how we live our lives as Hindus and come to make enquiries and then find their way into our folds.”

One has to wonder if this is something we’ll see more and more of in the future. In Indonesia the ancestor-worshipping religion of Borneo’s indigenous forest people, the Dayak, is being cannily re-branded as Hinduism in order to stave off Christian missionaries and cultural eradication. Could African forms of Hinduism be providing a similar umbrella to indigenous forms of religion and spirituality in Ghana and Togo as well? What new religious hybrids will emerge from the intersections of Hinduism and indigenous beliefs? As India grows as a world power could we see Hinduism became a new alternative for those seeking to escape missionary efforts from the dominant monotheisms? We should keep an eye on this trend.

Michigan’s Bullying Law: An increasing amount of attention has been paid recently to Michigan’s proposed anti-bullying law, which recently passed through the Senate, due to the “moral” and “religious” exemptions inserted into the language. These exemptions, critics argue, make the law a meaningless piece of paper, giving bullies a loophole they can easily exploit.

“The Senate Republicans took an already ineffective bill and made it an abusive bill that justifies bullying against our students. While the national spotlight is on the neglectful actions of the Senate Republicans, House Republicans can pass the strong, comprehensive, enumerated bill Governor Snyder references when he recommends Michigan legislators model this legislation after the State Board of Education policy. Oregon wasted ten years following a policy that accomplished almost nothing before it took responsibility for Oregon kids and passed the effective enumerated language Michigan advocates are requesting. Michigan has the data and case studies to do what is right for our students the first time. The nation is watching.”

These exemptions bring the case of Tempest Smith immediately to mind, a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide after being repeatedly bullied for her interest in Wicca, and manner of dress. The Michigan law, as it stands, would simply allow religiously-motivated harassment of kids like Tempest, you can almost see the scenario of ineffectual school officials saying they can do nothing. All students should have 1st Amendment freedoms, but a bullying law that exempts “moral” bullying under the guise of free speech is worthless. One can only hope that the language is refined to close off loopholes, and becomes something truly useful in empowering teachers and officials to stop bullying in their schools.

Keystone XL Pipeline: On Thursday the State Department announced that it was postponing construction of a new pipeline that would move tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries. The pipeline, known as Keystone XL, was hugely controversial among environmentalists and American Indian groups due to its proposed path through sensitive areas and reservation land. Now, with the pipeline postponed for further study, Native American activists are voicing cautious optimism at the development.

“I have come here to be part of this peaceful circle of people to shine a light on President Obama to be visionary and deny a corporate plan whose promise of destruction of our lands is certain,” Lakota activist Debra White Plume said in a speech at the protest. “President Obama will be an Earth Warrior, standing in the way of something bad coming toward the people, or he will step aside for TransCanada to foul our water, land, and health for generations to come.”

The Pagan Newswire Collective’s nature and environment blog, No Unsacred Place, has been covering the pipeline and its environmental ramifications, with contributor John Beckett noting that “it’s hard to look at the photos of tar sands extraction and not think it’s bad. It’s hard to calculate the risk to the Ogallala Aquifer and not think it’s bad. It’s hard to think about exacerbating climate change and not think it’s bad.” Here’s hoping that this delay will result in a compromise that’s acceptable to all parties interested in this issue.

That’s all I have for right now, have a great day!