The woman sobbed as she told her son’s story to the Anoka-Hennepin School Board on Monday. “Hi, I’m Tammy Aaberg, the mother of Justin Aaberg, who was a gay student at Anoka High School who committed suicide July 9th of this year.” The school district has become ground zero in the battle between those who want safe spaces for LGBT students and those who want any mention of homosexuality banned from high school campuses.
According to LGBT advocates, Justin’s death is one of three suicides by gay students in the last year, and while the district says it takes bullying seriously and has beefed up discipline against harassment, it has spurned invitations by LGBT groups to do anti-bullying education. To make matters more complicated, a group of parents opposed to homosexuality has formed to put pressure on the board not to bow to LGBT interests.
The district — the state’s largest, with around 40,000 students — made headlines last year when the Minnesota Department of Human Rights alleged that two teachers conspired to harass a student, Alex Merritt, who they thought was gay. The news led to protests at school board meetings urging the district to adopt stronger anti-bullying policies and offers by LGBT groups to provide education. The school board rebuffed those efforts.
Now, with news of three suicides by LGBT students within a year, family and friends who have lost loved ones are demanding the district make changes.
“For those of you who have never had a gay child, you need to know it is one of the scariest things to learn because you know that they will need to deal with a lot of criticism and harassment in their lives, and it makes me worry,” Aaberg said.
Justin’s family and friends told the board that he had been bullied at Anoka High School before he took his own life. “Do you think my son Justin deserved to die because there are other kids who feel superior by picking on him and no staff member will stop them?” she asked the board.
A memorial video of Justin Aaberg created by family and friends. Aaberg, a cello player, composed and performed the music used in the video.
Two LGBT students also used the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting to describe their feelings of isolation at school.
Christina, who graduated from Anoka High School and who was friends with Justin, said, “When experiencing these problems, you can’t go to your parents, where you face rejection from those you love the most.” She continued, “You can’t go to your church if you are in condemnation from a religion you’ve always embraced.”
“You can’t go to your community.” She added, “Even in parks we have experienced harassment from people shouting ‘lesbian’ at us until we eventually got in the car and drove away.”
Megan, another 2010 graduate, took issue with the school’s policies. “It says that it is better for students to go to their home or their community or their church. I can’t go to any of those. I go home and my parents tell me I am cursed. I go to my church and I am rejected and condemned. I go to my community? What community do I have to go to?”
Megan was referring to a 2009 school board policy that says sexual orientation is not to be taught in the district.
Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations. Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.
That policy, the AH District 11 Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, has become the battleground for LGBT advocates and members of the religious right.
Parents Action League doesn’t disclose its membership, funding
In July, a shadow group of parents formed in the district with the intention on staving off any advances for LGBT students. The Parents Action League launched its website in June along with a petition that reads, “Whereas homosexual behavior exposes participants to many life-threatening health risks; and whereas the classroom environment needs to be solely focused on academics; Therefore, we the undersigned citizens of Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11 do whole heartedly support and desire that the School Board adhere to … the AH District 11 Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.”
When the Minnesota Independent asked who founded the group and if it had any connections to other “pro-family” groups in the state, an unsigned email came back: “We think our website explains very well what we’re about and who founded it – citizens in the Anoka Hennepin School District.”
When questioned about ways to get more information about the group’s activities, the Independent was told via email, “We do not see your name on our on-line petition. Once you sign the petition, we may be contacting you” [emphasis theirs].
The group’s domain name registration doesn’t include identities of any group members, nor is the Parents Action League registered with any entity in Minnesota such as the Secretary of State’s office.
What is clear from the group’s website, however, is its ideology.
It wants the district to “respect traditional family values” and to “provide valid resources for students (and their families) struggling with sexual identity and/or same-sex attraction.” It seeks to “ensure that all health curriculum teach healthy sexuality and promote abstinence until marriage.” The group also wants the district to “promote the Day of Truth” each year.
The Day of Truth is an event organized by Exodus International, a group that says it can turn gay people straight through Christian prayer. It encourages students to bring the Exodus message into schools one day before the Day of Silence, an event that draws attention to violence against LGBT people.
The Parents Action League also has concerns about the district. It bemoans a “lack of resources and assistance for those students seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle” and “an increase in pro-gay curriculum materials and resources used in our schools.”
The group is also concerned about “the health risks to students who are affirmed and labeled as ‘gay’ and who may participate in homosexual acts” and “the pro-gay activist teachers who fail to abide by district policies and use their classroom to promote their personal agendas.”
Gay Equity Team targets bullying
On the opposite side of the spectrum, another group has formed in response to the alleged harassment of Alex Merritt by two teachers. The Anoka Hennepin Gay Equity Team or GET is “committed to creating a safe, affirming, welcoming and empowering climate in the Anoka-Hennepin School District for all people regardless of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Over the last few months, the group has been responding to the troubling news of LGBT students taking their own lives. Peter Gokey is a member of GET and a former teacher in the district. He said the district has made positive steps to address bullying. It has added LGBT themes in its anti-bullying training videos, and the teachers union has created a training for teachers in the district as well.
But, Gokey says, until the district addresses the the AH District 11 Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, also known as the “neutrality policy,” the hands of teachers, staff and students are tied when trying to create a welcoming environment for LGBT students.
“It is the lack of cultural competency on gay issues that fosters an environment where bullying is possible, and the neutrality policy is a reflection of that lack of competency,” Gokey said. “Being reactive to bullying is necessary but not sufficient to reverse the suicide trend in the district. Proactive measures to be more affirming are needed; sadly, such measures are prohibited under the neutrality policy.”
The policy is also problematic because it is hardly neutral, he says.
“The policy is general to all issues of sexual orientation, but is only used against GLBT issues. In practice, no one is expected to remain neutral on the straight identity,” said Gokey. “The gay population is the only population that the district singles out in policy, creating stigma in how staff perceive and even interact with gay kids.”
Gokey said that anti-bullying policies are important but insufficient; the neutrality policy should also be changed. “It would remove just one more isolating factor, besides depression and bullying, that contributes to the suicides happening up there.”
Gokey also said that the Parents Action League will not deter GET from its mission to create a school where LGBT students feel safe. If anything, he said, it’s motivated the group to work even harder.
“Their aims are perfectly consistent with many other groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as hate groups, so on one hand it’s easy to blow them off, yet on the other hand, such extreme views as this are troubling,” he said.
Of most concern, he said, is “how [members of the Parents Action League] have worked so carefully to hide their identities. That level of secrecy suggests insecurity to me, and suggests nefarious intentions.”
He added, “We have nothing to hide about who we are or what our goals are. We’re all proud of what we’re doing.”
Anti-bullying measures not enough
While the two sides gear up to lobby the district to see their side, it’s little consolation for those who have lost friends and loved ones due to isolation, bullying and harassment. At Monday’s school board meeting, comments were directed at the neutrality policy.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t learn of this unfair school sexuality policy until after Justin died,” Tammy Aaberg told the board. “I was reading some information online which other parents had posted. There are some people who think parents should have rights not to have their kids exposed to homosexuality.”
“Well, news flash: There are homosexual people all over the world. Having your kid meet a homosexual in school and possibly even having a nice conversation with one isn’t going to turn your kid into one.”
School board Chairman Tom Heidemann thanked Aaberg for her testimony. But he said the neutrality policy and the bullying policy were two separate things.
“Just so you know, there are two distinct policies,” he said. “One is a curriculum policy and the other is a bullying policy. Under no circumstances should anybody in Anoka-Hennepin be bullied. It is the expectation of this school board that a teacher or administrator would take immediate action and if they don’t we would expect disciplinary action.”
Gokey agrees with Heidemann; the district is giving much attention to the issue of bullying in the district’s schools. But it is still not enough.
“The school board is very clear that they are taking the bullying issue very seriously, and by all accounts they are,” he said. “The problem is that they myopically fail to see a connection between their neutrality policy and the poor environment for GLBT kids that exists.”