School faces a devil of a complaint

Parent's objection imperils class mascot at Catonsville High

October 09, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | By Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

For four years, Catonsville High's Class of 2002 has used a little red devil as its mascot. Now, after a single complaint, the school's seniors are wondering if they'll have to give it up.

It all started during the finale of last week's homecoming "spirit week" competition. With eyes on the $50 prize to the class with the best-decorated hallway on Friday, seniors spent hours hanging red and silver balloons, construction paper flames, cardboard cutouts of their smiling devil and signs asking, "Can you handle the heat?"

The victory was short-lived. Before the class was presented its winner's check, Principal Robert Tomback made the students tear down their decorations -- a response to one mother's complaint that the devil mascot promoted anti-Christian and Satanic beliefs.

"She's kind of accusing us of worshiping Satan, and we're not in any way doing that," said Tori Wilt, 17, vice president of the senior class. "We're not implying religion in any way. [The seniors' devil], he's smiling. He looks like a `South Park' character or something."

The complaint was made to the office of Southwest Area Executive Director Richard Milbourne, who passed it on to the school. Officials did not identify the woman who lodged it.

"This parent apparently found that offensive, found it troubling that the Baltimore County public schools were in some way countenancing the depiction of the devil around the school," said school system spokesman Charles A. Herndon. "The Baltimore County public schools is not in the business of offending anyone."

Spirit week is over, but yesterday, seniors were waiting to find out if they will have to dump their devil. It has been the class mascot since the students were freshmen. Back then, they were given the class color red and told to choose a corresponding symbol. The choices: the devils, the fire, the salamanders and the Twizzlers, after the red licorice candies.

"Who would want to be the Twizzlers?" asked Amanda Anton, a student government member. "If there was some rule we weren't allowed to be the devils, they never should have let us be the devils our freshman year."

The school's other classes this year are the purple penguins, blue bulls and green Ninja Turtles.

Tomback said he has been consulting with the school system's lawyers and will talk to other administrators before deciding if the senior's devil will have to disappear. No one has complained before, he said.

"The decision right now is to consider this issue carefully and very deliberately," he said.

There was a lot of discussion at school among students of what to do next, whether their senior class T-shirts emblazoned with the devil character will be outlawed, or if there is a way to save their mascot.

"Maybe we'll get a petition together," Wilt said.

Pam Wilt, Tori Wilt's mother, said she supports whatever her daughter wants to do to protest the school's decision. "You have Devil Dogs, Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners, you have devil used in all kinds of ways that are not religious," she said. "I don't see the connection in this case to religion. I think they should be able to keep it."

There are no school system policies on mascots, Herndon said. The topic has come up in recent months as the state school board urged -- in a nonbinding ruling -- that local districts get rid of Indian mascot names, which some Native Americans have said they find insulting.

At Catonsville High the debate will go on -- and Tomback said he is sorry his seniors have been the ones caught up in it.

"The students involved are terrific kids, they are just wonderful," the principal said. "I don't believe for a second that there was anything mean-spirited, anything that was intended to offend anyone. If they had the slightest idea this would have been offensive to anyone, they wouldn't have adopted it as their mascot.

"But the issue is: Now that a question of whether this is offensive has been raised, this question has to be discussed," he said.

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