Cromwell -- Monday night's meeting of the Board of Education's Program Committee seemed like something straight out of the Salem Witch Trials, as a small group of residents warned about the power of Satan and the perils of the school system teaching from books that deal with witchcraft.
"Witchcraft is of the devil, and the devil is very powerful. When you put witchcraft in front of children and say it's okay to be a witch, you're destroying your children," said Ron Rio, a West Hartford resident who said he had "strong ties" to the school system.
"You wouldn't put heroin if front of you children and say its okay to try it," Rio added.
Rio was among only a small number of people who expressed support for a petition calling for a ban on all materials dealing with witches and witchcraft from the school system. The petition was circulated by a small group of devout Christians, who feel that the school system teaches children witchcraft by encouraging them to read books like the ones in the "Harry Potter" series.
Since the petition was first made public, the issue has created a buzz around town, and has been the focus of state-wide media coverage. Monday's meeting on the petition drew a packed audience at the middle school.
The meeting, however, was largely anti-climatic, as school officials did not take any action on the petition. Because the group never had the signatures on their petition validated by the town clerk, and failed to fill out an official form requesting a curriculum review, the program committee was not in a position to even review the materials cited in the group's position. Instead, the meeting served as what Superintendent Mark Cohan described as "a civil discussion" on the group's efforts.
The petition specifies two books, "The Witch of Blackbird Pond," by Elizabeth Speare, and "The Bridge to Terabitha," by Katherine Paterson, that the group feels glorify the practice of witchcraft.
The petition also calls for the ban of things such as a worksheet on the spells and practices used by people accused of being witches in the Salem witch trials, as well as the annual field trip to Witch's Dungeon and Museum in Salem, Mass. It also calls for a ban on more abstract references to witchcraft, such as the title "Cast a Spell," used to introduce spelling techniques in grades one through eight, as well as the practice of some members of the faculty dressing up as witches for Halloween.
The petition explains that witchcraft is a form of religion called Wicca, and points out that federal law bans all religion from being taught to children in the public school system. Bridget Flanagan, 61, who has served as the group's unofficial spokesperson, argued on Monday that the inclusion of books about witches in the school curriculum violates the concept of the separation of church and state.
"If parents want to allow their children to read these books, that's fine. But there is a separation of church and state. (Lawmakers) say that we need to keep religion out of our schools, and Wicca is a religion," said Flanagan.
Richard Taylor, a pastor of the Master Table Ministries which has congregations in Cromwell and West Hartford, said books like the ones in the "Harry Potter" series puts children in touch with a "dark, unseen realm."
"We come here with a heart full of love for the children. When (children) begin to dabble in witchcraft, it puts them in touch with an unseen realm. Witchcraft has become very popular with kids, they are interested in it. But there will always be the temptation to cross that line. There is a world of darkness underneath the surface," said Taylor.
But people like Taylor and Rio were clearly in the minority on Monday. Amid the click of camera shutters and the lights of a television news crew, dozens of people stood up to speak out against the "witchcraft issue," as it was described on the program committee agenda.
Many people questioned if members of the group have even read books like "The Witch of Blackbird Pond," and pointed out that it is about the dangers of hysteria and intolerance.
"If we took all the books off the school shelves that people had a problem with, we wouldn't have any books," said parent Eileen Branciforte. "I really have to wonder if these people have even read the books they are asking to be banned. They are wonderful books, with a positive message."
Mary Lou Banks, who has a daughter in the school system, said she felt that the recent witchcraft controversy has made Cromwell "an embarrassment."
"Cromwell may be a small town, but let's not be small-minded," Banks said.
Erin Banks was among a number of students who spoke out against the petition, pointing out that "The Book of Blackbird Pond" teaches children about the history of Connecticut and of "people who were different."
"We weren't being taught witchcraft," said Banks, who added that she learned all about the state's history when she went on a field trip to Wethersfield, the book's setting.
Pat Maher, a teacher, parent and resident, said that she has read "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" about 25 times and has taught it in class. She said that she has never equated the book with Wicca, and feels strongly that it teaches children that it is wrong to be intolerant of people just because they are different. She pointed out that the main character of "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" was only accused of being a witch because she wore colorful clothing and could swim.
"When I taught the book, it was a favorite of my students. It was one of my favorite stories growing up. The book, I did not feel, teaches Wicca," Maher said. "It's teaching the history of Connecticut. It's not about witchcraft. People were persecuted as witches because they were different."
Stefanie Sidorski, a sophomore at Cromwell High School, is against banning books. She said her sister is going into the sixth grade, and she wants her to read the same books she did.
"These books are really interesting," Sidorski said. "It's history. There's nothing bad about the books. They're good for the sixth-grade level."
Her mother Nathalie Sidorski was also in favor of the books staying in the school system.
"I want her to be able to read what her sister read," she said. The Sidorski family spent two days at Salem, Mass. learning about the history of the area.
Parent Amy Kaiser said she was offended when she came out of a church on a Sunday and was essentially harassed by one of the petitioners.
"We came out of church and were badgered to sign this petition by this woman. I think these people really needed to take no for an answer and leave it at that," Kaiser said.
Flanagan said that she regretted that anyone was "badgered" by petitioners, and said she does not agree with the manner that some petitioners attempted to collect signatures.
"I know of the one woman who was in front of the church. We didn't agree on what was the best way to go about this. We didn't want that kind of attention," she said.
After Monday's meeting, Flanagan said that she will continue her efforts to have the materials dealing with witches and witchcraft removed from the school system. Those efforts might include submitting her petition to the town clerk, or filling out the paperwork needed to officially request a curriculum review.
She added that never meant to offend certain people, such as Wiccans, and was only interested in having the school board take a closer look at some materials in the school system that she feels are potentially harmful to children.
"I feel sorry for the Wiccans being abused," she said. "I'm not out to get somebody. (But) Wicca is a religion. It should not belong in the schools. Cromwell has to open it's eyes."
At the close of the public comment period, Program Committee Chairwoman Heather Montanile saidanother public hearing would be held on the witchcraft issue if the group fills out a formal request for a review.
"I think this was really a great expression of our first amendment rights here tonight," concluded Montanile. "This is what our county is all about."