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Suicides have parents questioning district's policies

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Tammy Aaberg
Tammy Aaberg holds up a photo of her son Justin that was taken just before prom this past spring. Justin, 15, killed himself on July 9, 2010. Tammy says her son's sexual orientation made him the target of harassment, and she's now advocating for changes to the Anoka-Hennepin district's policies regarding GLBT students.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A rash of suicides in Minnesota's largest school district has some people pushing for the district to revise policies regarding sexual orientation.

Seven teenagers in the Anoka-Hennepin School District have killed themselves during the past year. Some, but not all, of those students were gay and there are concerns that bullying at school helped push them to suicide.

By 9th grade, Justin Aaberg was an accomplished cellist and a composer of songs like this one, which he posted on YouTube.

Just weeks after finishing his freshman year at Anoka High, Justin killed himself in his bedroom. His mother and his two brothers found him.

"I touched him -- because I just couldn't believe it," Tammy Aaberg said. "I thought I was in a nightmare -- and he was so cold and I just screamed and ran out and called 911."

Tammy Aaberg had known her son was gay for a year and feared for his safety. After he died, she started hearing from other students about how Justin was harassed and bullied.

"He probably hated himself, and thought that no one would like him even though he had tons of friends," she said.

Aaberg said there was probably not one thing that pushed Justin to suicide, but she's focusing her grief now on trying to get the Anoka-Hennepin school district to clarify its policies regarding gay students.

District leaders say they know that at least two of the seven teens who committed suicide in the past year were gay. Aaberg and several gay rights groups say district policies on sexual orientation send mixed signals that create an unhealthy atmosphere for gay students.

One policy requires neutrality in dealing with sexual orientation issues. It's designed for curriculum, so teachers, for example, won't advocate for or against gay and lesbian issues in the classroom. Critics say the policy is too vague.

The policy states that staff must remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation 'in the course of their professional duties.' But 'professional duties' often include everything from breaking up fights to consoling students.

So, say the critics, teachers don't have clear guidance on how to respond during certain situations involving gay students.

Phil Duran, with OutFront Minnesota, a group that helped the district write its policy but which advocated against the neutrality section, said  he's spoken to staff who are concerned they might be fired if they don't act in a neutral way to break up a fight involving a gay student or if they show support to a student who wants to talk to about sexual orientation.

Tammy Aaberg
Tammy Aaberg says her son Justin seemed happy, even in the hours before he committed suicide on July 9, 2010. Justin was 15 and had just finished his freshman year at Anoka High School. He was also gay; his death sparked Tammy to advocate for changes to the Anoka-Hennepin district's policies regarding GLBT students.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"You've got a series of students who've taken their lives -- not because of the policy, of course -- but the policy makes it harder for the staff to know what to do in response, and it promotes an environment where the students feel that much more devalued and hurt," Duran said.

Skeptics, though, say it's too big of a leap to blame suicides on the district's sexual orientation policy. A group called the Parents Action League was formed to support Anoka's neutrality policy. 

"We don't know what was going on in the minds of these children, or what caused them to take their lives," said Barb Anderson, who is with the Parents Action League and also works for the Minnesota Family Council. "It was stated that three were over sexual identity issues -- but what about the others? I have no idea, but there's no reason to jump to the conclusion that it's because of the policies that they took their lives."

District leaders stand by their policies and say they're continuously clarifying them. The district website lists actions that have been taken to curb harassment of gay students, including training for counselors and other staff.

Superintendent Dennis Carlson said it's unfair to say his district has failed to act. He said the tone of emails he's received has him concerned the debate is reaching a fever pitch from all viewpoints.

Carlson has this message for teachers and staff: District policy requires you to intervene if you see bullying or harassment, and you will never be fired for being supportive if a student wants to talk about sexual orientation.

"If a gay student comes to a teacher, they should be confident that they can be supportive of that student," Carlson said. "If [the student says], 'I'm gay, I'm troubled, I'm depressed,' we should be able to give that student resources to deal with that."

Carlson says he's also worried that public discussion on suicide might create copy cats. 

He says that's one reason he hasn't widely publicized past efforts to deal with suicide in the district.