Following suicides, Anoka-Hennepin community presses school board for change


The issue of suicides among LGBT students drew parents, students and community members to the Anoka-Hennepin School District headquarters Monday where they pressed the school board to change policies they say contribute to a culture of bullying. But anti-LGBT forces were on hand as well, telling the board that changing the policies would undermine parental authority. 

A press conference was organized by the Gay Equity Team (GET), a group of parents, students and teachers that formed in 2009 following a Minnesota Department of Human Rights report that showed two teachers conspired to harass a student because they thought he was gay.

GET organized the event in response to seven suicides in the district.

“Four of those students faced harassment and bullying based on their perceived GLBT orientation,” said GET spokeswoman Robin Mavis.

Representatives from national groups including the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network and the Human Rights Campaign spoke about the implications of anti-LGBT bullying, and Sen. Al Franken sent a statement to the press conference.

“In what should be an unthinkable scenario, some of these children and young people end their own life,” Franken said. “Anoka-Hennepin has witnessed too many tragedies this year. We need to do more to protect our children from bullying. It’s time we extend civil rights to LGBT students.”

Tammy Aaberg, whose son Justin took his own life in July, said bullying contributed to his death.

“I was aware of one incident, but I had no idea how horrible it was and I’m learning that this harassment happened in the company of teachers,” she said Monday. “I want Justin’s legacy to be that he’s the last gay child to take his life because of bullying. To ensure that what happened to my son doesn’t happen to other students in Anoka-Hennepin and elsewhere, is why I’m here today.”

Aaberg said that the sexual orientation neutrality policy adopted by the school board must be changed. The policy prohibits teachers from talking about sexual orientation and says that those issues should be relegated to parents, churches and community groups.

Justin Aaberg in a YouTube video he created

The school also has a separate policy that prohibits bullying and specifically mentions race, sex, disability and religion. That it excludes sexual orientation has been another concern of GET.

School district spokeswoman Mary Olson said the neutrality policy simply says “teachers should not provide their own opinion on GLBT issues” and that “the neutral policy does not extend to hate speech.”

“The neutrality policy is not intended to prohibit teachers from correcting students for using harassing or homophobic language,” she said.

The school district has been adamant that they have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and that they’ve told teachers they must intervene on behalf of all students who are being harassed.

Olson also said that they’re working with students as well. “We have told students who are bullied to let some adult know. It’s difficult to address it if we don’t know,” she said.

But when asked whether the neutrality policy was actually neutral, the school acknowledged it was not.

The Minnesota Independent asked whether the policy also prevented teachers from discussing heterosexuality – for example, in the context of discussions about marriage or sex education. “That’s correct,” Olson said. “It only pertains to discussions of GLBT issues.”

And that has been the sticking point for GET, whose members say that the policy is discriminatory and is the reason some teachers may look the other way when anti-gay bullying is occurring.

“The district has been clear that its harassment and curriculum policies are separate issues, and on this we fundamentally disagree,” GET member Michael McGee told the school board during the open comment portion of the meeting Monday evening.

“There can be no meaningful, proactive training and education regarding how to respond to and prevent the bullying and harassment of GLBT members of the Anoka-Hennepin community while the sexual orientation curriculum policy remains in effect. They are inextricably connected.”

He said it “continues to perpetuate an environment that is hostile for GLBT students” and “allows representations of heterosexuality but singles out homosexuality as unworthy of acknowledgment and discussion.”

Justin Anderson, a recent graduate of the district, said that that lack of discussion made him feel isolated and alone. “Hearing people speak negatively about me every day with no intervention tore away at my self-esteem,” he told the board. “I never heard any one teacher or student speak out against it, and I became depressed.”

He said there were times he felt like taking his own life. “I would think, ‘Tonight’s the night I’m going to do it.'”

Dale Schuster, a former student of the district, relayed some of the same comments.

“There is no way to be neutral on this issue. Either we support the GLBT students as we do their straight peers or we don’t,” he said.

It’s impossible to explain why hateful rhetoric is wrong with a neutrality policy in place, he said. “How do you stop the anti-gay rhetoric without explaining why it’s wrong in the first place?”

He added, “The time to remain neutral while our GLBT students are taking their own lives needs to end.”

But not everyone at the school board meeting thought the neutrality policy was a bad thing. Brian Lundquist of Ramsey said he was a memeber of the Parents Action League, a group that recently formed in the district.

The group had advocated for ex-gay therapy and expressed concern for “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.”

Parents Action League shut down their website recently, citing “bullying” by the the LGBT community.

Lundquist told the board that the group is made up of parents “who want to ensure that our schools remain focused on core academics in the classroom.”

He said that the neutrality policy is important and spoke out against attempts to “undermine the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of our own children.”

He added that “respectfully disagreeing with a point of view or behavior is not bullying.”

“On behalf of the Parents Action League,” Lundquist urged, “we just wanted to let you know we support you as school board members and ask that you keep the aforementioned policies.”