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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.

Justin2-300x224

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.”

Comments

10 Comments

Adam
Comment posted September 29, 2010 @ 12:27 pmMany thanks to GET for all their great work!

For a primer on Safe School resources, visit OutFront Minnesota’s website:
http://outfront.org/library/schools

…but until we can pass the Safe Schools for All bill (under a governor who won’t veto it!) we’ll continue to see these tragedies across Minnesota. So vote Nov. 2nd!


Lane
Comment posted September 29, 2010 @ 2:37 pmNo parent has a right to teach anti-social behavior to their children under the guise of “disagreeing with a viewpoint.” Children (and some adults apparently) should be taught to get along with – and to respect – others.

Anti-social behavior should not be overlooked, tolerated or not decisively dealt with on any school grounds.


Lane
Comment posted September 29, 2010 @ 3:01 pmRecent LGBT youth suicides include Billy Lucas in Indiana (hung himself in the barn), Asher Brown in Texas (shot bullet in his brain) and Seth Walsh in California (died after nine days on life support when found hanging from a tree in his backyard).

Those of you young readers who are LGBT or questioning, check out The Trevor Project (www.thetrevorproject.org) as well as the YouTube messages of support from many in the LGBT community – key phrase “It Gets Better.”

Shame on you, Parents Action League! All of you are despicable.


ZeraLee
Comment posted September 29, 2010 @ 11:37 pm“The policy prohibits teachers from talking about sexual orientation and says that those issues should be relegated to parents, churches and community groups.”

And the parents, churches, and community groups have failed. Quite likely, parents and churches are key parts of the problem.

One more neglected social problem undermining education, and the future it is preparation for.


Lane
Comment posted October 1, 2010 @ 12:11 amIt Gets Better Project

http://www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject

Young readers who are LGBT or are questioning, this channel contains many videoclips of messages of hope and encouragement for YOU left by adult members of the LGBT community nationwide. More clips are posted every day.

Yes, it WILL get better for you! We all care!


Gay Minnesota Teen Hangs Self in Response to Anti-Gay Bullying « Unfinished Lives
Pingback posted October 2, 2010 @ 5:08 pm[…] that their vaunted policy is hardly neutral when it comes to LGBTQ teens and their orientation.  The Minnesota Independent reports that Dale Schuster, a former student of the district, criticized the way district policy […]


Christy
Comment posted October 4, 2010 @ 4:29 pmAs a Christian, I am appalled by the lack of compassion toward students who are bullied for ANY reason. There is no reason good enough. My heart breaks for the families who have lost their precious children to bullying-related suicide. I live in SD 11, and I agree that the district’s “neutrality” stance is part of the problem. Clearly, teachers do not feel they can intervene, kids feel they cannot safely go to teachers or staff. It is wrong. While I can understand to an extent where PAL is coming from, I believe they are focusing so much on their moral definition of “right and wrong” that they completely forget about grace and compassion that we are all commanded to show to one another. It certainly is not coming through. Rather than sadness and regret and compassion for the kids who have taken their lives, there is blame and judgment. This is disgraceful. Whether someone is gay or not should not be an issue. Bullying is a human issue.

Some friends and I have started the “I Will Listen” network. Right now we are just on Facebook, but we’re working toward having a web site and becoming a non-profit organization. Our purpose is to empower kids, teenagers, young adults and adults alike to be “safe people” for their peers and community members who experience bullying. No judgment. Period.


Christy
Comment posted October 4, 2010 @ 5:45 pmFurther, I applaud the bravery of Tammy Aaberg to speak publicly. I am so terribly sorry for the loss of Justin to intolerance and hatred. He did not deserve such terrible treatment. As a parent of an Anoka HS teen, I didn’t know Justin, and neither did my son, but we still feel sorrow for his loss.


Dakotahgeo
Comment posted October 5, 2010 @ 3:38 amAs a retired Baptist Pastor/Chaplain, I can attest that MOST churches are the WORST places to advocate tolerance or support GLBT people of all ages! The American christian Taliban is alive and well in the Christian church today! If there is a problem with intolerant teachers, or Administraion, the only way to deal with the problem of bullying is the Courtroom! The ACLU stands ready to support all victims of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. Obviously, the educational system is not equiped or mature enough to handle the situation! I am also a retired K-12 teacher and I know how the system works! It was my responsibility to see all were treated equally and I simply did not tolerate any type of abuse in my classrooms or in my presence.


Playground bullying: It doesn’t happen in a vacuum
Pingback posted January 7, 2011 @ 10:49 am[…] pushed tensions over GLBT rights into the spotlight, religious right activists have protested, too, raising concerns about “pro-gay activist teachers who fail to abide by district policies and use their classroom […]