Back in Black

A couple of doors down from a packed bingo hall and past the recliner store in an Arvada strip mall, a line of teenagers dressed in black braves the pouring rain while waiting to enter the Rising Phoenix.

The air inside is choked with smoke from clove cigarettes. Girls strut by in lace-up bustiers, vinyl mini-skirts, fishnet stockings and knee-high faux-leather boots; a boy with red lipstick and teased black hair is a dead ringer for the Cure's Robert Smith. On a small dance floor, the kids move to Loreena McKennitt's "The Mummer's Dance" and Ministry's "Stigmata." Strobe lights flicker.

It's goth night at the small cafe on 53rd Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard, a place where letter jackets and Gap vests are considered on the fringe of couture. It's where the kids who don't fit in come to fit in.

In the back of the dark coffee shop, several teens from Arvada West High School huddle around a table. Some are drinking cappuccino; others are painting their nails a shade as dark as night. These students find sanctuary here on weekends, but on weekdays they stand out amid the preppie kids at school like black lipstick against a pale face.

With more than 2,400 students, Arvada West is Jefferson County's largest high school. Mercedes Hartman, a sophomore who hangs out at the Phoenix on Friday nights, estimates that there are only thirty to forty goth students in the entire school.

Her crowd has been scrutinized and analyzed, talked about and worried about in the months since the Columbine shootings; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were said to have hung out with the goths at their own school. In light of what seemed like an effort to tolerate different groups, the goth students at Arvada West thought they might find more acceptance when they returned to school on August 17. Instead, they say, the preps and the jocks -- even the administrators -- still treat them like outcasts.

"They whistle [Marilyn Manson's] 'Beautiful People' as I walk past and chant, 'satanic girl, satanic girl,'" says Rebecca Blanchett, a junior who likes to wear black jeans, black T-shirts and heavy eyeliner that extends to her temples in intricate patterns. But she maintains that the goth style is "a cool's an art form."

"People seem very wary of me," Hartman adds. "When I'm walking down the hall, they look frightened, and they swerve out of the way to avoid me."

The goths have their own hangout near Arvada West called "the pit." They crawl under a fence separating the high school from an adjacent park. There they can smoke and just be themselves.

But Hartman and Blanchett want to use the attention that has come from the Columbine shootings to start a club for students who consider themselves pagan or wiccan. Paganism is a nature religion that pre-dates Judaism and Christianity and has its roots in Europe. Pagans celebrate the earth and find the divine in all things -- nature, humans and animals. Wicca is a neo-pagan religion that is also based on a deep reverence for nature. Wicca is not to be confused with satanism; in fact, most wiccans do not believe a supreme evil spirit exists.

Last year, the goths -- and other students who didn't fit into any category -- petitioned to form a school club for students who like role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. What they really wanted was to form a pagan/wiccan club, but they figured administrators wouldn't go for it. Hartman, who helped circulate the petition for the role-playing club, says hundreds of students signed it. But she claims school administrators denied the request, saying the community wouldn't accept it.

"We brought up the fact that there's a Christian club, and yet we weren't even proposing a religious club," she says. "If we do try to start another club this year, we're just going straight for a pagan/wiccan club."

Arvada West High School principal Jay Stewart, who at first had agreed to talk to Westword about the situation, backed out last week; his assistant said the school is not accepting press calls.

According to the school's Web site, Arvada West does have a Bible Club, and announcements for its meetings are made over the school's public-address system, the girls add. In addition, there are foreign-language clubs, the National Honor Society, clubs for yearbook and band, and a club called Cheers, whose stated purpose is "to support sports activities, spirit and leadership and go to state championships" and whose members are required to cheer at games and assemblies. Poms, a separate club, asks its members to dance at games "to provide spirit for athletics and performance."

According to the Jeffco school district's fall 1999 conduct code, students have the right to "assemble and express themselves by speaking, writing, distributing, wearing or displaying symbols of ethnic, cultural, or political values such as buttons, badges, emblems, and arm bands; or through any mode of dress or grooming style; or through any other medium or form of expression." However, a principal or other "designee" can regulate expression "provided there is a factual basis for believing a specific form of expression by a specific student is causing or will cause substantial disruption of school activities or constitutes a health or safety hazard."

But Hartman and Blanchett say the administration has been cracking down on their clothing.

The school district has made no secret of its ban on trench coats, which Harris and Klebold reportedly were wearing during their April 20 rampage, but Blanchett says there is also a new, unwritten dress code.

Last year Blanchett frequently wore two of her favorite T-shirts to school without any trouble: One, which reads "Love Sucks," bears the image of a vampire sucking someone's arm; the other touts Marilyn Manson's "Mechanical Animals" album. When she wore the shirts this year, Blanchett says she was told by teachers and administrators not to wear them again because they are offensive.

Blanchett doesn't see how her T-shirts pose any harm, but she says she has grown accustomed to her freedoms being squashed at Arvada West, where, as at Columbine, the jocks still reign.

Last year some of the goth students tried to get a group photo included in the yearbook, but Hartman says the yearbook staff, which is made up mostly of athletes, ignored their request. Some of her friends have recently joined the yearbook staff and hope to get a photo in this year.

Blanchett says she hoped people would have learned something from the Columbine shootings, but she's resigned herself to the fact that she'll always be looked at differently. "The way other kids treat me is still the same," she says. "It will never change."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon