A little-known teen club shook the Town of Sylva out of a slumber last week and shone a bright light on the private lives of young adults.
Concerned parents brought 500 signatures to a town board meeting demanding that it shut down Club Offspring –– a private club for teens that holds dances on the weekends. But the club’s owner, Nathan Lang, defended his operation as an alternative youth ministry aimed at attracting “at-risk” youth.
Is Club Offspring a safe haven or a den of iniquity? The club remains open for now in the absence of proof that it has broken the law, but Lang’s past, coupled with lurid images on the business’s MySpace page, were enough to convince many people that it’s the wrong kind of ministry for their kids.
When his son came home with a flyer advertising a teen dance party and inviting them to come “as wasted as you want,” Brian Bartel was incensed.
“The thing that bothered me was that it was handed out at the high school to teens by teens,” Bartel said. “This gentleman who runs the club knows what he’s doing.”
Bartel followed a link on the flyer to the club’s MySpace page and his outrage turned to concern. The page included a photo album (that has since been removed) containing images of young women in lingerie dancing at a stripper’s pole.
“If this had been an adult club, right or wrong, I’d have nothing to say about it,” Bartel said. “But for him to create this environment for teens is wrong. If it’s going to be a teen club, let it be a teen club. There’s too many red flags.”
Bartel marched down to the club that Saturday night, bent on confronting the club’s owner. He was met at the door and refused entry on the grounds that the club was for teens and no one over the age of 24 was allowed inside.
Lang, who received Bartel at the door, said he denied him entry because he was combative and never identified himself as a concerned parent.
“I feel Mr. Bartel came looking for a witch hunt,” Lang said. “He barged in and didn’t introduce himself.”
In the wake of that confrontation, Bartel took the story to the media and began circulating a petition to shut down the club.
He also continued to research Lang and Club Offspring and found even more disturbing news. Nathan Lang previously ran a similar club in Waynesville with his son Russell, who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for statutory rape. Russell Lang was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl when he was 19, and his father was present in the apartment at the time police served a search warrant that led to the arrest.
“Did his failure to shape what teens do in a constructive way contribute to his son being in prison?” said Bartel.
In defense of Offspring
In the frenzy immediately following the revelation that Sylva housed a secret teen club that hosted “raves” in a building whose windows were covered in black plastic, Club Offspring was in danger of a media lynching.
Sylva police and town officials took a measured path and met with both Bartel and Nathan Lang, and Lang’s side of the story painted a picture diametrically opposed to the one that had aroused Bartel’s suspicions.
Calling himself an ordained minister with a psychology degree, Lang portrayed his club as a safe haven for youths who live in a world rife with addiction, alcohol and teen pregnancy. Lang stands by his relationship with his son, whom he says he meets with every week to discuss the club’s mission. He also contends that Russell was 19 and the girl was 15 and that law enforcement used misleading dates in an attempt to encourage a harsher sentence.
“My son and I are both in this ministry,” Lang said.
Lang also stands by the wording on the club’s flyer that provoked so much controversy.
“They want me to regret saying that because they think it means wasted people will come,” Lang said. “[Young adults] are getting wasted anyway. They’re getting pregnant anyway. We wanted them to know they could come here and be themselves.”
Lang said Club Offspring holds dances on Friday and Saturday nights and charges $10 admission, though no one is turned away and many young people volunteer their work in place of an entry fee. Drugs, alcohol and sex aren’t allowed.
Amanda Bowman, age 19, volunteers at the club and started a Web-based petition that resulted in nearly 400 voices of support for Club Offspring.
Bowman, who says she has never had a drink, urged local youth to support the club as a much-needed outlet for young adults.
“Sylva NEEDS THIS. If they have somewhere to go, then maybe the teenagers at the local high schools and colleges will stop having unplanned pregnancies!” she wrote. “Maybe we’ll see less newspaper announcements about underage possession of alcohol among the under 21 crowd... because they certainly aren’t going to drink in the club!”
Cody Sutton, also 19, volunteers as the club’s DJ. Sutton said he began using drugs as a 13-year-old. Now clean, he says there is no other place he feels he can express himself.
“All we’re looking for is to get that little bit of freedom,” Sutton said. “That eight hours a week.”
Steven Godfrey, 22, used to be a church youth group leader. Now he helps manage Club Offspring.
“We attract kids that don’t go to church,” Godfrey said. “Church people are a specific type of people, and they’re not going to come see us.”
Lang believes that young people today are torn by the contradictions inherent in the divide between the world they live in and the world adults seek to define for them.
“When they have problems –– and they will have problems,” Lang said. “There needs to be someone around who’s level-headed and who they can talk to.”
The light and the dark
Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody summed up the community’s concern as he addressed Lang during the town board meeting that addressed the community petition to shut the club down.
“Your flyer does not convey the positive image that you want to,” Moody said.
Bartel used stronger language.
“If you’re motivated by scripture, then where is it?” Bartel said. “What does the darkness have to do with the light?”
Moody said the town has to look at the club’s existence from a legal standpoint. Until there is proof of illegal activity, it will remain open.
The question now is how the community will react to the establishment.
Patti Tiberi, substance abuse regional prevention coordinator for the Smoky Mountain Center, has concerns about the message Lang and his club convey to young people.
“I think what’s difficult is there are just some practices that Mr. Lang has employed that aren’t very clear and are sending a double message,” Tiberi said.
At the same time, Tiberi said the support for Lang’s club showed there is a dire need for positive outlets for young adults. Tiberi said partners in the Jackson County Substance Abuse Prevention Council are currently working on organizing youth dances in the community and have already established a group at Smoky Mountain High School called Students Against Negative Decisions.
She hopes Lang will become part of the initiative.
“If he is serious about it, then I’m hoping this can help him become a more transparent messenger in the community that we can partner with,” Tiberi said.
Tiberi commended Bartel’s willingness to stand up as a parent. She hopes the awareness the debate has sparked will force the community to deal with the lack of positive alternatives the county’s youth are facing.
“The blessing in this whole thing is the issue is on the table right now and we can’t dismiss it,” said Tiberi.
Lang contends that conventional efforts to reach teenagers –– like high school dances with strict supervision –– will just push at-risk youth away.
“Saying no to teenagers doesn’t work very well,” Lang said. “Saying no to adults doesn’t work very well... We need a ‘Yes’ and not a ‘No.’”
Lang sees his club as a way to reach young people who will otherwise be left to search for their identity in the adult world.
“We see ourselves in the community not as a nuisance but as a place where teenagers can be who they are,” Lang said. “If anything, it’s a new doctrine attempt aimed at teenagers.”