The Outing Of A Petty Charter Myth - Open Source Civic Journalism as Community Firewall

Some people believed in his snake-oil cures for the ills of a struggling public institution. Few took the time to examine his charter school mythology in a critical light. It seemed cool, counter-cultural, esoteric and wildly anarchic. Behind the charter school mythology was the pagan friar named Brother Petty. Now he is known by the Lakewood and Rocky River Police Departments as Philip J. DiStasio.

On August 24 DiStasio was arrested by the Rocky River Police and charged with both corrupting another with drugs, a fourth-degree felony, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor.

According to Detective Sgt. Carl Gulas Petty has been transferred from Rocky River's jail to a Cuyahoga County facility in anticipation of additional charges. With bond set at $500,000 DiStasio is likely to be facing far more serious charges.

Back in June, DiStasio encountered an inquiring team of Lakewood Observers, who quickly deconstructed a pathogenic myth disguised as a utopian educational program. DiStasio was using alternative charter school pedagogy to mask a perverted agenda. With a charter school and sanctuary in mind, DiStasio said he wanted to create a safe place "where a child can point at a man's penis and say 'I want that', without being ridiculed by society [as victim]."

There was a very dark secret behind DiStasio's obsession with child safety, privacy and religious sanctuary hidden below confusing layers of religious and mythological symbolism mixed with strands of anarchic, revolutionary thought. DiStasio's dark secret needed layers of camouflage.

DiStasio's alternative-minded audience seemed captive, at least before his values were laid bare by critical chops sprung from Lakewood's Open Source Civic Journalism project, the Lakewood Observer.

In the beginning the anarchic friar managed to strike a sympathetic chord with some of Lakewood's "indie" Gen X parents. The "indie" appeal hinged on a counter-cultural rejection of hierarchical institutions, moralizing traditions and laws. Typically a sympathetic Gen X parent was interested in home schooling. In another case, a parent was in the process of deciding the child's educational fate - public, private, charter or home school.

The common denominator joining the friar's charter school myth to his "indie" target audience was longing for the most comprehensive and progressive education that could be imagined for their children. These young Gen X parents were seeking a holistic approach to childhood education.

"I invited him to speak to my mothers' group. I'm a tough judge of character and I don't trust very many people. But I trusted this guy. He's slick," explains one mother, who wishes to remain anonymous.

As the self-proclaimed friar looked to set-up a charter school within Lakewood, DiStasio promised parents he could deliver the alternative education dream.

For over a year now, DiStasio has been evangelizing an alternative education program called "Class Cutters." Across the region, he has promised that his students would spend more time out in the world experiencing arts and culture, and less time memorizing "useless fact" in the "abusive" environment of our public schools. From pagan drum circles in Euclid to a self-alleged application for a position with the Lakewood City Schools, he has been relentless in pursuit of grass-roots support for his alternative educational practices, which were based out of his Wooster Road apartment in Rocky River.

On several occasions DiStasio had been spotted in Lakewood venues such as Cyber City and the Phoenix Coffee in the company of several boys between the ages of 10 to 14. In an interview, he claimed support from at least two families who had entrusted their children to his care. He claimed to enjoy financial backing from at least one partner.

At "Open Mic Night" in Phoenix Coffee, DiStasio advocated the legalization of marijuana as his young students looked on, brought there to experience what he called a "Dionysian" taste of culture whereby teacher and pupil study art during the day and party during the night.

DiStasio professes a weird Dionysian faith. On his website Arcadian Fields, he joins the Goat god Pan and Saint Francis. "The spirit of Dionysus is present in such historical figures as Aristotle, St. Francis, Machiavelli, Quentin Crisp and Patch Adams--people who opened their lives to the point of unconditional giving and receiving," he proclaims.

It's not surprising that DiStasio's profession of a weird Dionysian faith should induce panic. The kind of giving and receiving pushed as pedagogy seems rather consistent with the orgiastic flavor of the Dionysian cults from ancient Athens. The Dionysian nexus of sex and narcotics crossing gender and generations has inspired DiStasio to twist and twist further a perverse orgiastic logic into his charter school myth.

"If you start with the perverse, if you started with the twisted, then everything else above that is okay," DiStasio says. Thus DiStasio attempts to frame his "inclusive" ideology through a perversely twisted cornerstone of childhood development.

In the beginning, DiStasio's attempt to infiltrate Lakewood's "indie" community starts in Phoenix Coffee. First DiStasio approached owner Julie Hutchison about hosting raffles and meet-ups at her establishment, intending to secure some subsidy for his "education" venture.

Hutchinson, who holds a minor in dance from CSU, was initially interested in assisting with the arts piece of the alternative school curriculum. However, DiStasio was not interested in her formal help with his pedagogy. In fact he recoiled from collaboration when Hutchinson expressed concern over the lack of structure to his method. In short she worried that academics had been left in the dust. He then informed Hutchinson his interest was not in academics. Instead he requested from her Phoenix Coffee gift certificates for raffle prizes at his fundraiser gatherings.

"He kept talking about 'The Man' and how everybody was trying to keep him down," Hutchison recalls.

In an interview with the Lakewood Observer DiStasio hammered the same theme, stating, "People are denying other people fundamental rights because of what they put in their mouths and what time of day and with who." Whether espousing a sacred right to illegal sexual acts with minors or the illegal consumption of drugs, the educational focus was easily lost in DiStacio's ranting.

While hanging out at Phoenix Coffee, DiStasio and his young company began to raise red flags with several people. For example, one Phoenix employee witnessed DiStasio hanging out with two underage boys during her shift. She grew suspicious about the manner in which the children and DiStasio were interacting. As she explained her take on the dynamics, the boys seemed embarrassed to be with DiStasio. They often cursed him. His response was to smile and offer them sweets and pastries.

No discipline. No Structure. A weird student teacher dynamic. Slack by day. Party by night. All in view at Phoenix Coffee, as DiStasio's "Class Cutters" attempted to advance the cause of an alternative charter school in Lakewood. Of course, it was an unconvincing antidote to the "abusive" environment of our public schools, which he so opposed. But who was really paying attention?

The pagan friar from Rocky River first appeared on the Lakewood Observer's radar screen when I met him at the Phoenix Cafe earlier this summer. Approaching the counter I overheard a man in his early thirties talking about Jungian shamanism, Bob Marley, Jack Kerouac and the evils of our public school systems. All in nearly one breathe. This, I thought to myself, would be a great story.

After nearly two hours of conversation, DiStasio's intentions began to surface. It was clear that he was pushing a wacky idea that would find no traction in Lakewood, a charter school that was less about learning than it was about hanging out with a "youth ministry," unaffiliated with any established local church. As DiStasio's arrest now suggests, there may be something more dangerous than a slack teacher with bonehead ideas for a charter school lurking below the surface.

Soon enough, the Lakewood Observer faced DiStasio's challenge head-on. On June 15th, after informing the Lakewood Observer advisory board of the pagan friar's presence in the city, I received an email about a recent registrant on the L.O. Observation Deck who was refusing to play by the rules. Friar Petty had joined the online forum.

All participants in the Observer's online forum are required to use real first and last names when registering with the site. This is the one and only rule. However Brother Petty, whose legal name is Phillip DiStasio, refused to comply with this rule. Instead, he registered as Brother Petty, and began posting links to his yahoo group's web page Arcadian Fields Ministry.

Consequently, members of the Lakewood Observer advisory board received complaints from community members concerned about postings made under a fake name. Having heard enough from citizens concerned about the violation of the rule, Lakewood Observer Advisory board member Steve Davis demanded instant action on the issue.

When DiStasio was asked to re-register with his legal name a battle of e-mail ensued. DiStasio continued to register under different pseudonyms and protested the legal name requirement.

"We can hide safely behind our pseudonyms in order to express outlandish ideas that we'd never share in public. Uninhibitedness, so essential to the creative process, can now be applied from the very beginning of any venture and we can be free to associate with each other and seek each other out on the basis of mutual interests and beliefs alone," DiStasio posted on the forum.

In an email letter to the Observer Advisory Board, DiStasio objected to a vetting process that would insist on the link between real name and message. "I maintained already, this is my real name it's only that certain bureaucracies don't acknowledge it as such. The fault is in your system, not mine. This is a matter of belief, the change of name represents a re-birth, a re-acquisition and initiation into a new faith. It doesn't matter what you or the state or anyone else says, it is my name."

The anarchic friar needed to bring a level of legitimacy to his ministry and charter school. He wanted in to the Lakewood Observer. Only he insisted on doing so according to his terms.

Unfortunately for DiStasio, when one plans on teaching children in the City of Lakewood, even in an alternative charter school well below the radar screen, the community's interest in knowing the personal history, intentions, values and their pedagogy is acute. The Lakewood Observer could not be buffaloed by the anarchic friar.

In recalling DiStasio's first post on the LO Observation Deck publisher Jim O'Bryan notes, "What he posted was like Koolaid, in a flavor that any parent would want to drink - sugar free, low cholesterol and able to turn any child into an intellectual and athlete. It was the thing that was going to cure all ills." It was the counter-cultural, anarchic thrust of his vision that attracted positive responses within certain niches, while alarming others right off the bat.

Advisory Board member Kenneth Warren explains, ""Brother Petty tried to replace the principled, lawful kernel within Lakewood's open source model of citizen journalism with an anarchic and demonic kernel. That won't fly in the Lakewood Observer."

In open source computer programming, the kernel is the source code upon which the program and it variants are based, and which is open to viewing and alteration by all who can read and rewrite it.

In the Open Source world of L.O. civic journalism, any idea can breathe life into the online forum and printed pages. But no idea is innocent. All ideas will be tested. As critical pressure builds, off the wall ideas without power to amplify and attract civic intelligence and community good will slip from community discourse.

O'Bryan articulates the Lakewood Observer's Open Source method, "The reason that he wasn't outed directly is because with Open Source there's a respect for all ideas until they're found to be illegal or vile. The community that's willing to put it out there and vet the ideas, thoughts and plans while working together as neighbors is strengthened through Open Source Journalism."

No sooner did DiStasio join the forum than his intention and charter school pedagogy were put to the online community's test. On June 25 O'Bryan asked advisory board members for input on resolving complaints about DiStasio's use of a faux name. There was debate about conducting an inquiry as to whether Brother Petty was, in fact, a legal name and whether such a fact would entitle Distasio to post or simply whether he should be deleted from the board.

Shortly thereafter, O'Bryan, Warren and advisory board member Steve Calhoun went to Phoenix Coffee to discuss the strategy for informing Brother Petty that a real name is required for posting. As coincidence would have it, a man noticed them, because they were wearing Lakewood Observer tee-shirts. O'Bryan and Warren asked, "Are you Brother Petty?" He was. They invited him to pull up a chair and began a discussion about the rules of the forum and the need for a real name.

With DiStasio's consent, the Lakewood Observer team conducted an intense four hour interdisciplinary inquiry into his dreams, intentions, life, ministry, mythology, needs and values, while explaining conditions in Lakewood and the Lakewood Observer. In the process, however, the pagan friar's explanation of his life and mission raised among the Lakewood Observer team substantial concerns about his ministry and work with children, particularly his concept of religious sanctuary and the protection of children.

Frequently DiStasio explained how sanctuary is the legal protection of the accused who wish to hide within the confines of a religious institution rather than face punishment by law. He spoke about his life in Columbus, remarking that he was disturbed adults were cruising for children at the Matthew Shepherd candle rally in Columbus, and that therefore children needed protection in a sanctuary. He mentioned he worked with gay children. He spoke about a murder. In another instance he mentioned talking to the FBI.

"At the conclusion of the session we believed his remarks raised the suspicion that he could be a pedophile trolling for Lakewood children under "indie" charter school guise," said Warren.

"His expressed desire for religious sanctuary and the charter school, coupled with his belief that drug use and sexual relations between adults and minors are healthy rites raised more red flags. We felt a nagging suspicion that he had not only a theory but a capacity to act out," explained Warren.

At one point in the meeting Petty began playing with the symbolism of the Tarot deck. To which Warren, fluent in mythology and semiotics replied, "You're into symbols. You're into the Tarot. I've got a card for you. It's called the Tower of Destruction. Your school is the tower, the language of the Lakewood observer is the lightening."

On Sunday, June 26, O'Bryan contacted Lakewood Law Director Brian Corrigan who advised him that the Lakewood Observer team should speak with a police detective on Monday.

On the same day DiStasio provided his name and address to this Lakewood Observer reporter in the hope that he could make use of the open source media to promote his charter school and mission. After obtaining the legal name Lakewood Observer webmaster dl Meckes and advisor Steve Calhoun conducted an Internet search that retrieved data, sometimes using Way Back - the archive of old web data - which would lend additional credence to the initial assessment that the man could pose harm to the welfare of children.

O'Bryan filed a police report with the Lakewood Police on Monday, June 27.

That same day, DiStasio wrote an e-mail to O'Bryan, Calhoun and Slife: "Lock me away? Fine. I guarantee you that if I end up behind bars I'll do my best contract every disease, destroy every piece of public property, endanger myself and every inmate and spend as much time I can in the hospital and the court room so that I can make myself the most expensive inmate in Lakewood's history. And when I've got your attention that way,
I'll make any statements I please. Because I have nothing to lose."

On Tuesday, June 28, the Rocky River Police were informed of the presence DiStasio's Class Cutter's on Wooster Road.

Following the Lakewood Observer's discovery of DiStasio's belief in "high touch" pedagogy, Phoenix Coffee owner Julie Hutchison banned him from her establishment. As the cautionary word about the anarchic friar's teachings spread like wildfire, DiStasio's loose knit social support network in Lakewood quickly unraveled.

DiStasio remained desperate for an audience and access to open source media, inviting members of the Lakewood Observer to attend a keg party at Cyber City on Detroit Road in downtown Lakewood.

DiStasio approached the Cleveland Food Not Bombs group to cater one of his parties. However, because the lawful kernel of the Lakewood Observer had already exposed his twisted "high touch" pedagogy, some Lakewoodite members of the group were already alert to his presence.

One member, Lynn Thompson explains that "until we were led to believe that he wasn't doing the things he was doing, we weren't going to work with him." Ian, another member of Cleveland Food Not Bombs, said of Petty's thwarted infiltration, "he asked at least one member in the group if he could watch their son." "He was showing up at our meetings and being disruptive. He was trying to get us to join his collective. He wasn't interested in working with the group, but wanted to use the group for his own ventures."

Not long afterwards, Hutchison contacted the Lakewood Police Department with the intention of obtaining a restraining order against DiStasio. Since being excluded from the Phoenix, DiStasio made harassing phone calls to the establishment. Nearly on a daily basis DiStasio would plead, demand and attempt to manipulate a way back into the store, desperate to pitch his charter school to the coffee's shop's considerable alternative culture customer base.

Months would go by before DiStasio was finally arrested on August 24th by the Rocky River Police Department. According to Rocky River detective Phil Morron, efforts were coordinated with Lakewood detective Leslie Wilkins.

While the allegations, charges and trial will unfold for DiStacio in the proper course of time, it is already clear that his charter school myth envisions the construction of an abusive environment far more sinister than that of an over-crowded public school class room where there is disciplinary policy and standardized testing. While extolling the 'virtues' of religious sanctuary, privacy, and spiritual sacrifice, DiStasio's twisted imagination turned sacred space into a zone of Dionysian orgy. In the sanctuary he believed there should be legal protection from prosecution so that drug-induced sexual intercourse between minors and adults could occur.

There is myth; there is fact. If facts prove true that DiStasio was acting on the ideas behind the twisted pedagogy of Dionysian myth, then the charter school and sanctuary were conceptual tools deployed to justify crimes against children. While a Petty myth has been outed in the Lakewood Observer, the court will ultimately determine what fact informs DiStasio's fate.
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Volume 1, Issue 6, Posted 04.13 AM / 09th September 2005.