Student advocates say Anoka-Hennepin district needs a new policy; suicides are cited.
Gay and lesbian student advocates complained Monday that the state's largest district -- Anoka-Hennepin -- is not doing enough to protect them from harassment.
Gathering at the district's Coon Rapids administration building, they said the district's "neutral" policy toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students encourages mistreatment of such students and discourages teachers from intervening to help them and to offer positive messages about their sexual orientation.
"Teachers and other staff members I might have turned to for help were silenced" because of the "neutral" policy, said Justin Anderson, a gay student and graduate of Blaine High School. "What's wrong with someone saying, 'You're fine the way you are?'"
The suicides of five Anoka-Hennepin students and two others with connections to the district over the past year lent a special urgency to their advocacy, they said.
"Four of those students faced harassment and bullying based on their perceived GLBT orientation," said Robin Mavis, a spokeswoman for the Anoka-Hennepin Gay Equity Team, who described herself as a "wife, mother and representative of the Anoka-Hennepin school district." Tammy Aaberg, whose gay 15-year-old son committed suicide this past summer, faulted the district for not doing enough to keep him from being bullied.
"I want Justin's legacy to be that he's the last gay child to take his life because of bullying," she said.
Two district teachers were accused of harassing a student two years ago at the district's Technical Education Program "for his perceived sexual orientation," said district spokeswoman Mary Olson. Those teachers, who were not fired but received "some discipline" from the district, are currently on leave of absence,she said.
Mavis said she and others want the district to scrap its sexual-orientation-neutral stance, and write policy language specifically protecting students on the basis of their sexual orientation. Plus, she said, advocates want more teacher training on how to deal with GLBT students.
District spokesman Brett Johnson said the district's "neutral" policy relates only to "sexual orientation in the classroom as it relates to curriculum. That should in no way prevent a staff member from reaching out to a kid who is gay."
Olson said the number of student suicides over the past 10 months "is much higher than we usually experience. Usually, we experience one or two at the outside. Probably more often than not, it's none." She said she didn't know the reason for the rise, but noted that foreclosures and job losses in the district are high.
Four of the five suicides cited by advocates were high school students who attended district schools and one was a middle school student, Olson said. District officials said two other students associated with the district -- one a district graduate attending the University of Minnesota, the other a charter school student, also committed suicide.
Phyllis Brashler, suicide prevention and mental health coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Health, said it is difficult to draw conclusions from Anoka-Hennepin's rise in student suicides.
"Numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year," she said. "It's difficult to determine trends with any statistical significance when the numbers are so small."
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547