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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Anti-gay bullying continues to be a contentious issue in Anoka-Hennepin, MN School District

By Andy Birkey -

Monday night’s meeting of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board was a contentious one as the issue of bullying and suicide in the district again came up. The state’s largest school district opened an investigation into the suicides of nine students over the past year — some by students who were allegedly bullied for their sexual orientation  — and said that it found no evidence that any of the nine were bullied. Students and parents criticized the district for its statement — at times the conversation devolved to shouting — while district officials said there’s not much they can do if students and parents don’t report incidents to the schools.
In a voicemail to staff last week, the district said that reports by parents, students and staff regarding bullying are “not true.”
“We continue to correct inaccurate statements about students who have committed suicide over the past year,” Superintendent Dennis Carlson told district staff. “We know how difficult these deaths have been for our schools. Based on all the information we’ve been able to gather, none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment. In addition to family and friends, many of our employees were personally affected by these tragedies.”
Over the last 18 months, the district has been at the heart of the debate over LGBT-bullying. In late 2009, a high-profile investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found that two teachers in the district conspired to harass a student they thought was gay. The teachers went on leave, and the district paid $25,000 to the student.
Then, in July, the suicide death of gay 15-year-old Anoka student Justin Aaberg sparked an uproar. Parents, teachers and students held a series of press events and gave testimonials before the school board where advocates said that as many of four students took their lives at least in part because of bullying.
"None of the suicides were
connected to incidents of
bullying," Dennis Carlson
Carlson said that these statements by students, staff and parents at school board meetings weren’t truthful based on data from the district’s student services department.
“As we all try to heal from the pain of these deaths the continuation of inaccurate information is not helpful,” he said. “Once again we have no evidence that bullying played a role in any of our students deaths. In a few instances, people told the school board and district leaders that employees stood by while a student was bullied. These statements are also not true. We have no evidence of that occurring.”
On Monday night, freshman student Jacob Tighe testified to the board that he was upset that the district called those statements “not true.” He said that bullying was a factor in his friend’s death and that even he has experienced anti-gay bullying — and he’s straight.
“Not only did some of these kids who committed suicide get bullied before they died, but one of them, who was a personal friend of mine, was even bullied even after she died. Kids said things like ‘she deserved to die,’” he told the board.
“Even though I am straight, I get teased because people think I am gay based on how I dress. Recently I had an incident where a student in class harassed me, and I reported it to the teacher who then singled me out in front of the class and ultimately made the situation worse by how she handled it.” He said the teacher handled his complaints “indifferently.”
“You tell us to report things, but then when people come forward, like some have done in this very boardroom, you say that what we say isn’t true,” he said. “Why should kids come forward then if you aren’t going to believe them?”
Justin Aaberg’s mother, Tammy, was also angered by the school’s response. She and Justin had discussed his sexual orientation, she says, and she was supportive of it. Shortly after his death, she learned from his friends that he had been bullied at school.
She has pressed the school board on several occasion to make policy changes to create a safer school culture for LGBT students, especially changing a policy that bans discussions of LGBT issues in classrooms.
She said it makes LGBT students feel devalued. “Gay kids believe that they deserved to be treated this way because they were gay,” she told the Minnesota Independent. “I honestly believe this is what Justin thought, which is why he tried not to make a huge deal of what happened to him.”
“I don’t know why they are doing this,” she said of the district’s response to statements by parents and students. “This is outrageous. They are bullying [students] into silence,” she said.
Aaberg is conducting her own investigation to determine what the district knew — if anything — about Justin’s experience with bullies. She says she didn’t know that Justin had seen a school counselor about it and questions why the school didn’t inform her of that fact.
But the district maintains that in none of the nine suicides was bullying reported to the district — either before or after the students’ deaths.
Responding to testimony by parents and students on Monday night about incidents of bullying and the perceived inaction by the district to address those incidents, Superintendent Carlson said, “There’s no question this is a difficult issue for this district, and we’ve been struggling with it for a long time”
He said that no one is casting blame at the victims of bullying. “In no way do we see the victims of bullying and harassment as individuals to be blamed. I mean, in no way.”
To the presenters he said, “When you make serious allegations against this district, we are obligated to investigate. We don’t investigate hearsay or rumors. We investigate facts.”
He said the district will investigate staff that do not intervene in stopping bullying.
“If they are unknown to us or are not named, it is impossible for us to go down that road. So clearly that is something that needs to be done,” he added.
Bill Thurston, the father of an Anoka Middle School student, said, “Publicly casting doubt on the number of suicides that were LGBT or bullying-related suggests that protecting the status quo is more important than protecting students.”
At last month’s meeting, Thurston spoke about his son being bullied, and board members said they asked him for specifics so that they could investigate.
“You know, we were very sincere when we said that when you came before us at the last board meeting and said you son was bullied, but we need you to talk to administration and tell us where it’s happening so we can deal with it,” board chair Tom Heidemann said. “If you are not willing to do that with us then that becomes a real issue for us to go and investigate.”
“I have a great relationship with the principal at Anoka Hennepin Middle School, and I saw that you scapegoated her and when you scapegoat teachers as well… You have to know, Tom, that it’s this policy,” said Thurston, referring to the ban on LGBT issues being discussed in the classroom.
Heidemann interrupted, “You are out of line.”
“You are out of line too, sir!”  Thurston shot back.
That policy seems to be at the crux of the contention in the district, and each person testifying said it created an unsafe school climate for students to report anti-LGBT bullying.
A district staff member, fearful about being fired for criticizing the district about the policy, spoke with the Minnesota Independent on condition of anonymity. It can be confusing for adults — let alone students — to know when LGBT issues can be brought up at all, the staff person said: “The policy is confusing. The policy is a paragraph in length and earlier this year [the district] produced a two-page table to define situations that were either neutral or not. Only one of the points on the table was actually curricular.”
The staffer continued, “They always claim that it’s only a curriculum policy. It was very laughable because one of the points was about staff wearing rainbows on their lanyards and how some students would be made to feel uncomfortable if staff wore rainbows. In the so-called training we had at the beginning of the year, any mention of homosexuality is supposed to cause the teacher to make a referral to the counselor or school psychologist. This pathologizes homosexuality.”
The district employee added, “The policy creates an environment in which kids are implicitly told they don’t matter. If they can’t talk about who they are in class, then why would they feel okay about seeking help from a principal or counselor?”
Despite the policy and the assertion that the district has not found bullying to be a factor in recent suicides, the district has beefed up its suicide prevention efforts and altered its anti-bullying policies.
In October, the board voted to clarify its anti-bullying policies to include sexual orientation.
During the summer, the district produced videos, to be shown to all students at the beginning of the year, that address anti-gay bullying. And the district has brought in special suicide prevention staff and distributed Safe Space kits — training materials for staff on creating a safe environment for LGBT students — in district schools.
“For well over a decade we have offered SEED diversity training (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) to teachers and administrators,” the district’s assistant communication director Brett Johnson told the Minnesota Independent via eamil. “All SEED leaders include a segment on concerns of GLBT students. While it offers staff an opportunity to discuss GLBT issues from diverse perspectives, the teachers who have participated in this training have said their primary goal is to learn how to best support students.”

The Minnesota Family Council’s Barb Anderson said last week that efforts to keep LGBT-themed school safety materials out of classrooms at Anoka-Hennepin School District have been a success, and she blamed groups attempting to improve school safety for the violence, calling them “child corruption” organizations. She made the remarks on the radio program of Americans for the Truth About Homosexuality, where she discussed the controversy surrounding reports of anti-gay bullying in the district and nine student suicides, some of which LGBT advocates have said were due to bullying.
Anderson, representing both MFC and the Parents Action League, appeared on the AFTAH’s radio program with group’s founder Peter LaBarbera. The group was recently recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group. Chicago’s Fox affiliate explained AFTAH’s new designation in a feature story last week.

Anderson, a researcher for the Minnesota Family Council, has also been a representative of the Parents Action League, a group in the Anoka-Hennepin School District that has been pushing the district to incorporate “ex-gay” programming and to oppose LGBT content in the classroom following an uproar over allegations that anti-gay bullying has led to suicides in area schools. It is her third interview with LaBarbera in the last two months.
LBarbera asked Anderson, “If somebody comes up to you and says, Barb, you know what you are doing is contributing to the violence and suicides among gay youth, how do you respond?”
She said that it was LGBT groups that caused the bullying because more students were coming out of the closet.
“That is one of the tactics that they are using now, to say that by not legitimizing and normalizing homosexuality, we are creating an atmosphere in the schools that is hostile to quote-end-quote gay kids,” she said. “What they are doing is just the opposite themselves. They are creating an environment where these children that are sexually confused suddenly become affirmed as a homosexual or that they are born that way, and then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death in some cases.”
She added, “So, it’s really… They are the ones that are contributing to an atmosphere that can even increase bullying as more kids get into this kind of a lifestyle.”
Specifically, she said that it was the fault of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.
“They are the driving force, really the clearing house for all of the homosexual propaganda that is coming into the schools,” she said. “GLSEN also promotes getting gay themed literature for children to read which in most cases is extremely obscene and pornographic. They are also behind getting the Gay-Straight Alliances into the elementary schools as well.”
She added, “This is a real dangerous organization. They are what I would call a child corruption organization basically.”
She said the group is targeting “creative” and “unique” students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s Fred Moore Middle School where a GSA was created this year.
“It’s interesting that they targeted an arts school to begin with because a lot of times your have homosexual teachers in that type of environment working with students,” she said. “So these are students that tend to be sometimes very creative and unique in their personalities so it seems to be an area where they try to get in and get the students involved in gay themed productions as well.”
Anderson said that her group, the Parents Action League, has been pressing the school district to do away with GSAs.
“Because of the Equal Access act they feel that they have to allow this in the schools and they they have not been able to put a stop to it, but there are parents getting organized and trying to plead the case that this really is harmful to students,” she said. “It is not providing them with healthy information. None of this is based on truth or scientific fact, especially if they are telling kids they are born this way.”
While Anderson said that she opposes homosexuality, she also noted that she opposes bullying in all forms. The Anoka-Hennepin School District has been adamant that they have no evidence that bullying played any part in the 9 suicides in the district over the last 18 months, but LGBT advocates have said that in as many as four cases, bullying was a factor.
Anderson agreed that bullying has been a factor in student suicides. “Some of the bullying has just been awful and there are truly victims that have been bullied to the extent of harming themselves,” she said.
But, she said, that shouldn’t be a springboard for “promoting” homosexuality.
“What concerns me is that there’s no reason we can’t stop bullying without it becoming promotion of the lifestyle,” she said. “For example, if we have kids that are teased for being too thin because they are anorexic or dealing with bulemia, that doesn’t mean that to protect them or make them safe. We have to then promote the behavior that is causing the problem in the first place, but that’s what they are doing with homosexuality.”
She added, “Really homosexual behavior is one of the most hazardous behaviors that kids could get into and start practicing.”
Anderson said that Safe Space Kits, which are distributed by GLSEN to participating schools and educate teachers and staff on how to reduce anti-LGBT sentiment, actually create unsafe school climate.
“We have them coming in with their safe schools manual to make our schools safer and the safe space kits, and they all sound wonderful, but what they are really doing is making our schools less safe, unsafe for all students,” she said. “Not just for those that are sexually confused, but for others that are not because they either lead them down that path or lead them to become advocates and affirming kids that are sexually confused in the first place … So these are very dangerous programs to have in the school.”
One of the most contentious issues that have surrounded the controversy over anti-gay bullying in the district is the school board’s “neutrality policy.” That policy bars discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom — specifically discussion of LGBT issues as the policy does not apply to heterosexuality. Anderson said her group has been successful in preventing that policy from being changed and, in turn, keeping all mention of LGBT issues out of the curricula.
She said that has gotten harder since news reports of bullying and suicides this fall, particularly the suicide of Justin Aaberg, who was gay. Justin’s mother, Tammy, has been pressing the school board to make policy changes to improve school climate for LGBT students and specifically she wants the neutrality policy changed.
“In the wake of that tragedy,” said Anderson, “we have had more of the pro-gay materials flooding into our school district, because they are using that as a Trojan horse, playing on the emotions of the people involved and, of course, this is just a horrendous tragedy for this family.”
Anderson continued, “But they are playing on the fact that we have got to get more of this in the schools so this doesn’t happen to other kids and so that’s where all this pro-gay training is coming in, and it’s making it harder for parents to stop it. It’s really coming in like a tsunami.”
She then praised the school board, “But we do have an outstanding policy. Our sexual orientation policy, which parents can look at on the Parents Action League website, that was written by our school board members and is in place and is the one piece that is keeping these types of pro-gay materials out of the school day.”
She said that God’s grace will keep LGBT-friendly materials out of schools.
“I really think we can win with God’s grace,” she said. “We can stand against this onslaught by training our children. We have to teach them the truth to begin with. When you look at the homosexual population, they are only 2 to 3 percent of the population. We outnumber them by far, but we need to step forward with boldness and be reminded that we have the truth on our side.”
You can listen to the whole interview here: [MP3]


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