Boys in black

No question about it, Mark Lannoye stands out in a crowd. Even at Mesquite High School, with hundreds of other teenagers vying for each other's attention, the lanky sophomore catches the eye. At 15, he stands 6 feet 2 inches and sports a shock of blond hair. But his height isn't what attracted the scrutiny of school officials. Instead, it was Mark's habit of wearing all-black clothing and a distinctive pendant associated with the Wiccan religion.

"They had been trying to keep me from wearing black since the eighth grade," says Lannoye, pausing between words, his soft voice hesitant. "But this year Mr. [Charles] Nicks, the school principal, called me into his office and told me that the school was going to stick to its policy [of not letting me wear black], and that I was not going to be able to wear my pentacle."

Alleging that Mark's clothing and medal could be considered gang paraphernalia, school administrators demanded that he stop wearing them, according to Mark and his father, Rick Lannoye. Mark's father also claims that his son missed 23 class periods this school year--all spent in the principal's office--because of the administrator's insistence that he change or remove the articles in question.

None of the principals at Mesquite High School returned phone calls from the Dallas Observer requesting comment. Catherine Cernosek, a school spokeswoman, did respond, however, saying, "Our information is not the same as Mr. Lannoye's. I am not sure what the problem is. His son may wear a pentacle if he wants to."

She offered no explanation for the missed classes or any actions the school may have taken in the past concerning Mark Lannoye's clothing and jewelry.

Though school officials are keeping quiet these days, their alleged disciplinary action against a non-conforming student has attracted the interest of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Lannoyes are threatening to fight in court for their constitutional right to express their religious beliefs.

The pentacle, essentially a pentagram--a five-pointed star enclosed within a circle--happens to be the best-known symbol of the nature-based Wiccan religion. To Wiccans such as Mark and his father, the star's four lower points represent the forces of nature: earth, fire, air, and water. The fifth and highest point stands for the spirit, and the circle around it symbolizes Mother Earth.

The color black also has significance for the Lannoyes, especially during autumn. "It is related to the darkening of the seasons, and it is our way of expressing our connection to nature," Rick Lannoye says. It is also the Wiccan way of sympathizing with non-Christians who were persecuted for their beliefs during what Wiccans call "the burning times"--the 16th and 17th centuries that in Europe were marked by the Inquisition.

While the pentacle is commonly acknowledged by Wiccans as having religious meaning, not all adherents recognize the significance of the color black. But Wiccans do stress that one of the tenets of their religion is a strong individualism, emphasizing each person's interpretation and expression of his faith.

"To me, black has no special significance, but you have to remember that there is no one rule or liturgy for Wicca; every person will do it a little differently," says Larry Koentop, owner of Flight of the Phoenix, a Wiccan general store in Grand Prairie. "To the Lannoyes, black is a significant color."

Steve, a Wiccan from Arlington who chose not to give his full name, agrees with Koentop. He says that the color black has no specific religious meaning, but that "most Wiccans are solitary, and there is no book anywhere that states what this religion follows." He then goes on to ask, if Muslims and Hindus can wear distinctive clothing, and Jews can wear yarmulkes, "why can't the Lannoyes wear what they consider to be clothing of religious importance?"

The answer to that question apparently rests in a flier given to Mesquite High School administrators by Don Williams, a police officer who serves as a link between the school and the Mesquite Police Department. Williams wrote and distributed a one-page paper, which is titled "Youth Gone Wild" and "Outcast." It is not on official Mesquite police letterhead, but it states, among other things, that the Mesquite police have identified a new gang, and that Williams believes "Mesquite High School is seeing a large number of these individuals within the student body."

The flier lists as gang identifiers black or dark clothing and a symbol similar to the pentacle Lannoye wears. Other items or characteristics described as potentially gang-related are black nail polish, lipstick, or dyed black hair; Marilyn Manson T-shirts; chains and locks; and homosexuality.

Under the Texas penal code, the definition of a criminal street gang is "Three or more persons having a common identifying sign or symbol or an identifiable leadership who continuously or regularly associate in the commission of criminal activities."

When asked if the kids who prompted Williams to produce the flier had been convicted of any criminal offenses, Sgt. Joel Martin, Williams' supervisor, said, "Our officer at Mesquite High had some general information that he had received from our youth action officers...saying that in a general sense, there were some kids that were dressing and acting and behaving in a certain manner."

Asked about any specific criminal behavior committed by these juveniles that might have justified producing a flier labeling them as gang members, he said, "There weren't felonies, guns, violence, that kind of nonsense. There were behavior problems, and maybe some drugs and that kind of thing. But nothing more than they were getting together because they didn't fit in elsewhere."

While the symbol on the flier--a capital A set inside a circle--bears some resemblance to the pendant Mark wears, it is not a pentacle. It apparently was confusing enough, though, that school officials initially treated it as a dress-code violation. Mark Lannoye claims he missed several classes when he refused to remove it.

Diane Lemons, a secretary at Mesquite High School, says attendance records can't be given to anyone but a parent. But Rick Lannoye says Lemons informed him that Mark has missed 23 class periods since the beginning of the school year, excluding days when Mark was sick. Rick Lannoye also says the school's records show no reason for his son's absences.

At some point, the school apparently had a change of heart about Mark's manner of dress. Now, Cernosek says, "We certainly welcome any student that desires to wear a pentacle. Students also may wear all-black clothing." She made no comments about past events, however, and refused to provide a phone number for Williams, the police officer at the school responsible for the gang information sheet.

"Yes I do [have the number], but...He's got a job to do, and I'm not going to put him in the position of having to talk to reporters," she said.

The Mesquite school district's student code of conduct does contain a statement indicating that the district neither advances nor inhibits religion. Its statement regarding gang activity, however, is vague and allows the administration to decide on a case-by-case basis which objects, signs, clothing, or behavior are gang-related.

The language in the handbook has prompted a complaint from the ACLU's regional director, Diana Philip. She sent a letter to Mesquite schools Superintendent John Horn on Mark Lannoye's behalf saying that "The Code of Student Conduct states that MISD prohibits the display of gang-related clothing and articles. Unfortunately, these items are not described in the policy. It would be difficult for any student to abide by such vague language. A school may not enact a rule banning 'all gang-related items' and then decide on an ad hoc basis what is or is not a gang symbol."

Philip also expressed concern for the manner in which the gang flier was distributed. "If the school has personal knowledge of a gang-related activity concerning a particular group of students and that the wearing of items or articles to advertise one's affiliation to this group would incite violence or significantly disrupt the learning environment, then this information must be clearly shared with all students and parents."

The flier, however, wasn't widely circulated; rather, it was given only to a few parents--Rick Lannoye knows of only himself and a neighbor--in what he believes was an attempt to intimidate.

Rick claims the school district is now "back-pedaling and refusing to admit to what it did," and even though Mark is now allowed to wear his black clothing and religious medal to school, the Lannoyes have filed a civil rights complaint with the FBI against officer Williams.

"We're taking it as far as we can," Mark says. His father has also drafted several changes to the student conduct code, which he presented to the school board at its October 12 meeting. "Each student has the right to voluntarily express religion by manner of dress," his proposed changes read. "The school will not require, encourage, or coerce a student to engage in or refrain from such expression through dress during any school activity."

When Rick Lannoye asked school board members if they recognized any problem with the Student Code of Conduct, the only response he got was, "We'll take your statements into consideration."

On September 28, Mark Lannoye transferred out of Mesquite High School and enrolled in the district's alternative high school, Mesquite Academy. His father says he still plans to continue his fight until the district changes its student code to accommodate students such as Mark.

"We just don't want this to happen again to my son or anybody else, and I will not be satisfied until I have a written guarantee," Rick Lannoye says.

"The school board is dominated by a group of people that still want the students to look like they just came out of Leave it to Beaver," he adds. "They just have to get up to speed. We have different religions now, we have gay and lesbian students, we have all kinds of kids of all different races, and this is a public school they are all entitled to attend.


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