Mother of bullied gay teen to deliver petition against Anoka-Hennepin policy

Tammy Aaberg
In this photo from September 2010, Tammy Aaberg holds up a picture of her son Justin that was taken just before prom the previous 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 gay former student and the mother of a teen who committed suicide last year will deliver on Monday more than 12,000 online signatures to the Anoka-Hennepin School Board to protest the school district's sexual orientation curriculum policy.

The policy states that sexual orientation topics aren't part of the curriculum, and it instructs teachers to remain neutral if the subject comes up in class.

But gay rights advocates, along with parents of students who have been bullied, say the policy more resembles a gag order for teachers and staff. They argue the policy contributes to a hostile atmosphere for gay students because it prevents teachers from validating students' identity and doesn't allow teachers to fully support gay students who are bullied.

Tammy Aaberg, whose gay 15-year-old son Justin committed suicide last year, and Justin Anderson, a 2010 Blaine High School graduate, will deliver a printout of all the signatures.

"We want to give it to them in physical form to see what that looks like," Aaberg said. "It means a lot."

Anderson, who started the petition on change.org in June, said it isn't known how many of the online signatures are from Minnesota. He and other advocates are also collecting signatures from Minnesota residents in a separate paper petition.

The online petition drive follows the threat of a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights, who argue the policy singles out gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and creates an atmosphere where they feel unprotected. Representatives of the organizations have met once with district officials and say talks are ongoing.

Justin Aaberg
This 2009 picture provided by his family shows Justin Aaberg at his home in Andover, Minn. Aaberg, 15, hanged himself in his room in July 2010. His friends told his mother he'd been a frequent target of bullies mocking his sexual orientation.
AP Photo/Family Photo

Superintendent Dennis Carlson has defended the curriculum policy, citing separate anti-bullying policies adopted by the district. A group of parents who support the sexual orientation curriculum policy is gathering signatures to urge district officials to keep it.

The curriculum policy was adopted in 2009 to replace an older school board directive. Debate over the policy has received national attention, especially since Aaberg spoke out against it last fall. Aaberg marked the one-year anniversary of her son's death on Saturday. Justin Aaberg was bullied for being gay before he committed suicide, his mother said. Aaberg said the Anoka-Hennepin board has a opportunity to take a stand against a policy that allows anti-gay bullying to persist in the schools.

"By getting rid of this gag policy and providing teachers with training, maybe if they took the first step forward and actually did this, that could have a very positive impact on the whole country and have other schools follow in their footsteps. That's my hope," Aaberg said.

Anderson said it's disappointing that after hearing testimony from students and teachers following Aaberg's death, the school district still hasn't shown any interest in changing the policy.

"Every time we talk to them, they just say, 'We're not going to change it because we are part of a diverse community and we need to respect everyone.' But by doing this they are disrespecting the LGBT community," Anderson said. "They're hiding us away."

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