8th grader, Justin Aaberg, a student at Anoka-Hennepin public schools hanged himself in
his bedroom in July 2010, after becoming the target of harassment for coming out as gay.
For months, Presidential candidate and Minnesota House Representative Michele Bachmann has been the subject of a Credo Action sponsored petition asking her to address the issue of anti-gay bullying in the schools. To date, the petition has gathered over 130,000 signatures.
Bachmann was selected because the district she represents is, not surprisingly, the ground zero of the LGBT teen bullying and suicide story. Bachmann's Minnesota Congressional District is home to the now infamous Anoka-Hennepin school district. A rash of teen suicides has swept the district, nine over two years. The Anoka-Hennepin school district has attracted international attention, including an extensive investigation by London's Daily Mail.
Anoka-Hennepin has also become the target of a Department of Justice investigation into their school policies regarding LGBT students and handling of incidents of school bullying.
Justin Aaberg was once a student there, and now his mother, Tammy has agreed to deliver the petition signatures to Bachmann's office today. From Credo Action:
When Tammy Aaberg's son Justin was a 13-year-old student attending public school in Michele Bachmann's congressional district, he came out to his friends and family. What Tammy didn't know was the extent to which her son was being bullied at school. Not once was she notified by school officials of the harassment he faced.
Just a few weeks after finishing his freshman year in high school, Justin hanged himself in his bedroom, and was later found by his mother and two brothers.
Now Tammy wants to take Justin's story directly to Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has been silent on the issue of anti-gay bullying in schools despite a string of nine recent teen suicides in her district. Tammy will present CREDO members' signatures at a meeting with Michele Bachmann's Minnesota office on Thursday.
Credo is also asking people if they will join Tammy at this meeting, today, September 15, 12:00 PM. (Michele Bachmann's St. Cloud/Waite Park Office, 110 2nd Street S, Suite 232, Waite Park, MN 56387.) More info here.
It isn't only the DOJ investigation that is giving school administration headaches, there is also a pending civil lawsuit. More on the school district's legal problems from the New York Times:
After years of harsh conflict between advocates for gay students and Christian conservatives, the issue was already highly charged here. Then in July, six students brought a lawsuit contending that school officials have failed to stop relentless antigay bullying and that a district policy requiring teachers to remain “neutral” on issues of sexual orientation has fostered oppressive silence and a corrosive stigma.
Gay children, and some parents and supporters, say these efforts are undercut by what they call the district’s “gag order” on discussion of sexual diversity — a policy, adopted in 2009 amid searing public debate, that “teaching about sexual orientation is not part of the district-adopted curriculum” and that staff “shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation.”
The lawsuit was brought in July on behalf of six current and former students by the Southern Poverty Law Center and by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. It charges that district staff members, when they witnessed or heard reports of antigay harassment, tended to “ignore, minimize, dismiss, or in some instances, to blame the victim for the other students’ abusive behavior.”
Tammy Aaberg discusses the school's policies and her son on MSNBC:
She told MSNBC:
"I found out after Justin died, according to one of his friends, according to a counselor in the eighth grade school, that he was at the top of her 'worry list' and I never got a phone call on that."
More on the toxic atmosphere for LGBT teens at Anoka-Hennepin and the epic battle to keep Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs out of the schools, from Mother Jones News:
Last year, as the teen suicides prompted local discussion about how to prevent more deaths, and gay rights groups honed in on the school district's "neutrality" policy, religious conservatives formed a new group to preserve the policy and fight what they viewed as the undue influence of homosexuals in the schools. The Parents Action League headed by Minnesota Family Council researcher Barb Anderson, wrote on its website that one of the group's major concerns was the gay-straight alliance at Anoka Middle School. The Parents Action League has been fighting the GSA ever since, and Anderson has taken to the airwaves and local op-ed pages to blame parents and gay activists for the rash of suicides.
In June, she wrote to a local paper
Why aren't we outraged that the GSAs affirm sexual disorders? (i.e. homosexual attractions and behavior which for men is built around the practice of anal sex—the leading cause of HIV)…GSAs imply that homosexual behavior is acceptable and even cool. Homosexual-friendly books tell students that bisexuality, sexual fluidity and experimentation are OK.
Open your eyes, people. Parents, do you really want your children attending a GSA where homosexual behavior is affirmed and celebrated and where children are trained to be advocates for this unhealthy behavior as well as activists for gay rights?
Tom Prichard, the head of the [Minnesota Family Council], told the Minnesota Independent in October that his group would continue to fight anti-bullying efforts in the Anoka-Hennepin schools, saying that the suicides were not the product of anti-gay bulling but rather "homosexual indoctrination." Prichard said students like Samantha died because they adopted an "unhealthy lifestyle," and that "homosexual activists" were manipulating the suicides to further advance their agenda in the school district.
To hear opponents discuss it, you would think a Gay Straight Alliance was a mandatory attendance club. Of course not, they are entirely optional. They merely provide a safe space for kids who might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, gender non-conforming and their friends and allies to meet for support and friendship. What these GSA opponents really seek is to shut down any possibility LGBT kids might encounter ideas that do not conform to the conservative Christian worldview; that they are sick, disordered, unhealthy, broken, damned by God, even a "part of Satan," as Representative Bachmann has said.
On the one hand, I don't love even the appearance of using the topic of LGBT teen suicides to score partisan points. I felt a bit uncomfortable about that during the Scott Brown "It Gets Better" brouhaha. The issue of keeping our kids safe should transcend politics and party. On Bachmann's silence on the topic, Nancy Pelosi recently told The Advocate:
“I would think that if she wanted to be the president of the United States, she would understand that this is a larger issue than whether someone is gay or not, but as to whether someone is harassed and bullied to the point of seeing no way out.”
But, on the other hand, these deaths are precisely the end product of the LGBT-demonizing policies these bigots pursue recklessly and relentlessly. The same agenda State Senator Bachmann hitched her wagon to in 2003 to speed her rise to power.
And as so long as they fight any reasonable solutions or attempts to address the problem, the blood of these kids remains on all their hands. It seems appropriate that Mrs. Aaberg should bring this petition to Michele Bachmann's doorstep. Regardless of party, Bachmann was Aaberg's representative when Justin died, and Aaberg is entitled to ask Rep. Bachmann, why has she offered no help? I hope she looks her in the eye and asks her, "What about my son? Was Justin not worthy of respect? Did Justin not deserve kindness and support? Was he not worthy of God's love as well?"
This is the front line of the battle, and the stakes are literally life and death.
In March, the Aaberg Family posed for a family portrait for The NOH8 campaign's Adam Bouska, on what would have been Justin's 16's birthday. Bouska's signature duct-tape is sad and appropriate metaphor for Anoka-Hennepin school district's strict policy of silencing any discussion of the deadly problem of anti-gay bullying.
BACK: Shawn & Andrew Aaberg, FRONT: Anthony, Justin (Photo), and Tammy Aaberg.
Tammy penned this message:
"In Justin's memory I know his birthday wish would be that no LGBT person would have to hide who they are due to who they love and for everyone to love who they are. He had a very diverse group of friends and liked each person for who they truly were. His trademark saying was "Love the life you live, live the life you love". Let us all stand up to bullying across this country and quit hurting one another, and always remember that God Makes No Mistakes. Please never consider suicide an option, you are loved, always remember that. If you are in crisis please call The Trevor Project at 1-866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386)."-Tammy Aaberg 3/9/11
I am something of an agnostic, but if there is a God, I hope there is a very special place reserved for parents like Tammy Aaberg, and Judy Shepard and Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt, also of Minnesota, who can somehow manage to channel unfathomable grief into positive change for the benefit of others. They do their childrens' memories great honor.
• Will Rep. Bachmann break her own silence?
If news arrives how Tammy's the visit to Bachmann's office went, I will update.