PORT ORCHARD — The South Kitsap School District and Larry Mann met the morning of Oct. 27 to, through legal representation, seek a solution to the conflict between the two parties in a Kitsap County District Court courtroom, overseen by Judge Marilyn Paja.
The school district alleges Mann has written and mailed several letters that are — in the words of Magnalyna Geisler, the district receptionist who opens district office mail — “evil.”
She said the letters included threats of violence, sexual comments about students, trans- and homophobic rhetoric, photos of individual staff and students, and otherwise disturbing content. The letters were signed by the pseudonyms “Texas Momma” and “Prince of Darkness.” Mann claims he actually received those letters in the mail himself, and simply forwarded them to the district, his “civic duty,” said his lawyer Kerry Stevens.
SKSD is seeking a year-long protection order against Mann, which would forbid him from contacting, surveilling or being within 500 feet of Karst Brandsma, interim superintendent of the district, and Geisler. That 500-foot protection would include places of business for both named parties, which, in Brandsma’s case, includes all offices, buildings, schools and property of the school district, including bus stops.
At the end of the court hearing, Paja decided to extend the temporary protection granted Oct. 18 until Nov. 1, when she would then make a final judgment on the case regarding the protection order in a formal hearing. In the meantime, attorney Stevens requested a slight revision to the temporary protection order, which was granted.
The language regarding remaining 500 feet from school bus stops was modified to, ‘the respondent should not remain within 50 feet of any South Kitsap School bus stop except as is necessary for ordinary travel on streets or roads.” This was revised because not only is there a school bus stop within 500 feet of Mann’s house, Stevens said it would make leaving his home and traveling anywhere in Port Orchard impossible if he had to stay 500 feet from all school bus stops.
During the hearing, Geisler, Brandsma and Mann were examined and cross-examined by the lawyers and asked numerous questions about the case.
Magnalyna Geisler returns to her seat in the courtroom after giving testimony in an effort to get a year-long protection order against Larry Mann. (Photo: Michelle Beahm | Kitsap Daily News)
Geisler was the first to take the witness stand, questioned first by the district’s lawyer Megan Starks (who was working with Mike Patterson of Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch Inc. P.S.) then cross-examined by Stevens.
Under oath, Geisler described the letters as “evil.”
“Some are threatening, some are very disturbing,” she said. She added that at first, she didn’t take note of any return addresses, but after a few more letters arrived, she started paying more attention. “I paid close attention to one of them. It was my son’s elementary school he used to go to. That was disturbing. (Because) you don’t know if it was put on there for a reason if there’s something going on.”
Geisler described her feelings about the letters as “angry, upset, scared, frustrated.” She began to feel “fearful when I would go into work.” She said that she’s an early riser, often arrives at work while it’s still dark outside, and would feel concerned and wait to go inside until she was sure no one was waiting for her. Geisler said when she went to receive the mail, her stomach would knot.
Geisler also told the courtroom that she now keeps an air horn in her desk at work, which Geisler said was Brandsma’s idea.
“Karst asked me to get an air horn for the desk,” Geisler said. “If anything were to happen, I’m in an area where nobody can see me. If I need immediate assistance, I blow it. That’s the key to call 911 and come running.”
Starks asked if Geisler confided in her family — and Geisler said yes, she had. Her husband attended court with her.
“Because it’s scary,” she said when Starks asked why. “I need him here for support for that. If something could happen, it could happen to my own son. As a family, we protect each other and help each other.”
When asked, she told Starks also that the district has, in her more than two years’ experience, “never received any other” letter in the same tone as those sent by Texas Momma and Prince of Darkness. Geisler said there has been maybe one other anonymous letter arrive since she started working with the district.
Stevens asked Geisler if she had ever met, interacted with Mann or personally received letters signed by him. Geisler said she had not. Stevens then asked for confirmation that the letters in question referenced the author having children in the school district, and if they suggested they were written by a woman. Geisler answered yes to both of those questions.
Geisler also said she did not at any point ask Mann to cease sending letters, did not know Mann was involved with the letters until recently, and if she’d received other mail voicing concerns about SKSD operations. Geisler said no to all of those. Geisler said she would not seek anti-harassment protection if she’d simply received other mail voicing concerns about the district operations, but that it was the manner in which the opinions were expressed in the letters that caused her fear.
Karst Brandsma swears in as a witness in Kitsap County District Court before giving testimony why he should be granted a year-long protection order against Larry Mann. (Photo: Michelle Beahm | Kitsap Daily News)
Brandsma was the second person called to testify under oath in court. He said part of his daily duties includes receiving and responding to concerns parents, students, staff and community members bring to him through calls, emails or letters. Brandsma said he was “familiar with Mann” before the recent legal proceedings, having received letters and emails from him, or been copied on emails sent to the school board.
The letters in question were, after the first few, treated differently from other letters received, being hand-delivered by Brandsma’s executive assistant, which he said wasn’t the norm. He said she hand-delivered them because she knew of Brandsma’s “concern for staff and students district office staff, even for my own family. She knew I’d want to see them sooner than later.”
“I found them to be threatening,” Brandsma said. “I was trying to figure out for what purpose (they were written). The frequency was troublesome. Typically vulgar language. Some language included students or kids, references to our ‘cute cheerleaders with tight butts’ or a number of things that were just downright mean and very nasty.”
Brandsma said the Prince of Darkness letters sometimes came with photos of staff members attached, “which was very alarming.”
“It gave me the impression staff (members) were being stalked or followed,” Brandsma said.
As a result of the threatening tone of the letters, Brandsma said he increased security district-wide.
“At the high school, I increased security from two staff members to four,” he said. “At the middle school, I increased from half time to full time. We had a report done by Safe Havens International, probably the nation’s most renowned safety school expert, to tell areas we could increase staff and student safety. We implemented some of those measures.”
He said he also had installed a “video ring-in system” in the elementary schools, so that visitors couldn’t simply walk into the school office before showing their faces on camera.
“We’re in the business of educating students, that’s what we do,” Brandsma said, “but probably our No. 1 priority (is) to keep them safe.”
He also advised employees to be cautious, keep their key alarm handy, walk to their cars in groups, ask custodians to escort teachers to their cars. He also said he tried to “raise awareness to staff that they need to be on their toes.”
“I want them to do their work, but to feel safe and be safe,” Brandsma said.
Brandsma said his wife, too, was concerned for his safety. They established a safety protocol where he would communicate with her, usually through text, that he was leaving work and on his way home, and immediately let her know he arrived home. If he did not, he said, that would indicate something unusual happened.
“I’ve been in education 40 years and I’ve never received letters of that nature.”
Starks asked Brandsma about the letters. He said they all arrived in identical, stamped post office envelopes that looked the same. He said most of them had handwritten addresses on the envelopes that he thought were “pretty much identical.” One letter included a sticky note that said, “I’m a school district employee and I’m pissed,” which Brandsma said looked to be written in the same handwriting as the addresses.
Addressing the letter Mann wrote — and signed, with contact information — to the student body president of the high school, Brandsma said it contained “similar language” to what was in the Texas Momma and Prince of Darkness letters. Specifically, both addressed the idea the schools were indoctrinating students in socialism. Brandsma said he’s never received other letters other than Mann’s, Texas Momma’s and the Prince of Darkness’s, about socialist indoctrination in the schools.
When asked, Brandsma said he had indeed received letters from others that were critical of the district’s operations. He has not sought protection orders against them.
When Stevens questioned Brandma, she asked if he had ever met Mann, or seen him at the office or at a school. Brandsma said no. She then asked if any of Mann’s direct correspondence, signed by name, was “threatening, harassing, annoying or otherwise offensive.” Brandsma said one was, which questioned if students were Muslim. That letter was not included in evidence.
After Brandsma concluded the anonymous letters were authored by Mann (comparing handwriting on the signed letter sent to the student body president with the others), Stevens asked the superintendent if he’d contacted Mann to ask him to stop sending the letters. Brandsma said no, he hadn’t. When Starks asked a followup question, Brandsma said after he came to that conclusion, he contacted the Port Orchard Police Department.
Larry Mann swears in as a witness in Kitsap County District Court before giving testimony. (Photo: Michelle Beahm | Kitsap Daily News)
Finally, Mann took the stand, following a 15-minute court recess.
Stevens questioned him first, asking if he’d ever contacted the district and how he signed the letters.
“Yes, I have,” Mann said. “On email, (I sign) with my name. On other documents, my name, address, phone number, all that stuff.”
Mann said he’s seen the letters by Texas Momma and Prince of Darkness. He alleged they were sent to him, but he felt they were intended for the school district, so he “wrote the return address on the envelope, addressed to the school district, and sent to the school district, because I thought it was intended for them, other than me, and I couldn’t control anything in the letters.”
Then Starks took her turn questioning Mann.
Not all the letters were forwarded, he said. He said some letters he didn’t “know what they were even about,” so he shredded the letters instead of forwarding them.
Starks quoted a few of the disturbing passages from the letters, such as the explicit reference to Texas Momma’s sister “dancing on the pole,” in a letter where Texas Momma suggested two elementary students were looking at video of Texas Momma’s sister. This letter included a photo of the two students looking at a school-provided tablet. Starks asked if Mann thought “that was an issue of concern the district should be notified of,” as well as some of the other things she quoted.
Mann’s response to those queries ranged from “I’m not sure about that one” to “I don’t recall that letter.”
Starks asked Mann about the socialist indoctrination mentioned in the letters.
“I’ve been hearing this a bunch in the last five years,” Mann said. “I believe they are (indoctrinating students). That’s been all over the news … I don’t think it’s right, if that is in fact happening.”
Starks asked why Mann didn’t provide the district contact information from the original sender and if he did indeed simply forward them.
“There was no contact information other than a return address, which I wrote on the envelope I sent to the district,” Mann replied. He said he didn’t send the letters back to the post office to “return to sender,” and he provided no context or cover letter in the forwarded letters because he “sent them just as original as I could make them.” When asked if he attempted to notify police to the disturbing nature of the letters or to track down the sender, Mann said no.
“Probably a dumb mistake on my part,” Mann said.
Starks’ closing arguments
After examination of the witnesses was complete, Starks was asked for her closing argument.
“We have presented overwhelming proof that Mr. Mann … has exhibited harassing behavior that warrants protection,” Starks said.
“By Mr. Mann’s own admission, these letters were disturbing. He has claimed he did not draft the letters … he still admits to sending them, and that in and of itself is harassing behavior, knowing and willful. To give an example, if I found a vitriolic essay published in other sources that I repeatedly sent to somebody, just because I didn’t draft it doesn’t mean I didn’t willfully subject terror to the recipients.”
Starks said Mann’s willful forwarding of the letters without including any note to caution that the opinions weren’t his and that he was merely forwarding them was “an adoption and manifestation of the statement as his own.”
Starks said receiving these letters clearly impacted Geisler’s and Brandsma’s emotional well-being and their work performance.
“We’ve heard how Ms. Geisler gets physically sick to her stomach when she goes to open the mail. We’ve heard how Mr. Brandsma has to have a safety plan in place with his wife,” Starks said. “Safety precautions taken, fear discussed. Emotionally disturbing for these folks.
“They’ve had to adjust working,” she continued. “Instead of education, Brandsma is talking about trimming hedges back and increasing lighting. He’s talking to security officers and Safe Havens (instead of teachers).”
Starks said not only did sending — or simply forwarding — the letters have the purpose of causing fear and discomfort, it also had the effect.
“How Mr. Brandsma conducts himself, his performance in his job, how he feels for the safety of his family, his students, his staff,” Starks said. “The onslaught of what Ms. Geisler said is ‘evil’ letters. They’re scared. That’s why we’re here. They want an order.”
Starks said that First Amendment rights to free speech “do not require Mr. Brandsma to be subjected to being called a maggot, veiled threats … the First Amendment doesn’t require Ms. Geisler to listen to the onslaught of the sexualization of school children.”
“What we’re asking for is limited,” Starks said. “Neutral, across-the-board protection order to give these folks peace of mind and allow them one year where they don’t have to look over their shoulders.”
Stevens’ closing arguments
Stevens addressed the court after Starks for closing arguments.
“The school district is here with very real concerns about persons or a person in the community who is sending these vulgar and threatening letters,” Stevens said. “They’re not going to solve these problems by taking out an anti-harassment order against my client.”
Stevens said that because Mann has become known throughout the community as publicly taking a stand against the school district’s bonds and operations, the letters were sent to him.
“He did not do anything to encourage anyone to send him letters that were offensive or objectionable,” Stevens said. “He’s admitted he did forward them to the school district. Did he do this in an illegal manner or for illegal purposes? He just thought these were issues they should be aware of in the schools.”
Stevens said Mann forwarded the letters so that the school district could “become aware that there is someone in the community who is harboring these thoughts and feelings, and it’s appropriate they should know that.”
“The evidence is not there … that Mr. Mann authored these letters,” Stevens said. “There’s no evidence to support that. The fact that the word ‘socialism’ was used (in both the anonymous letters and Mann’s signed letter) is not relevant. The letters he writes are … not vulgar, they are written in a responsible manner.”
Stevens said Mann never suggested he was agreeing with the content of the letters.
“If he included things like, ‘See, I told you everybody’s mad at you’ or ‘I agree,’ then it would apply, but in this case, it was simply a forwarding of mail,” Stevens said. “Nothing to suggest Mann shared opinions or thoughts.”
The verdict will be announced at 9 a.m. on Nov. 1 in Kitsap County District Court. If the year-long protection order is granted, Mann will still be able to contact the school board and make Freedom of Information requests, but both would need to go through the Patterson Buchanan law firm.