Justin's Gift, a nonprofit named for a 15-year-old who committed suicide, is planning the event for gay teens and their 'ally friends.'
Tammy Aaberg with a photograph of her son, Justin, who hung himself in July 2010, at her home in Anoka. After his death, she learned from his friends that he had been outed as gay in the eighth grade and was sometimes shoved and called names by other students.
Justin Aaberg dreamed of creating his own haunted house. He loved Halloween and scary things. But there was little frightening about Justin, his mother said.
Other kids apparently weren't so sure. Justin, who was gay, was grabbed, bullied, teased to the point of tears -- behavior that often went unaddressed by school counselors, Tammy Aaberg said.
On July 9 of last year, Justin hung himself in his home. The Anoka High School freshman was 15.
This Saturday, the nonprofit Justin's Gift will present a Halloween party for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youths and their allies at the Champlin Community Center. The event, which will include food, music, games and crafts, is open to kids ages 12 to 18.
"People are being very positive about this," said Tammy Aaberg. "I was in a restaurant in St. Louis Park and a waiter overheard me talk about it. He said, 'I'm gay. I wish there was something like that for me.'"
Justin's Gift was founded by Aaberg and Jefferson Fietek, a teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts. One of Fietek's students committed suicide two years ago after she was teased for being perceived as a lesbian and dressing like a boy, he said. Sam Johnson was 13.
"We need to have an open and honest conversation," Fietek said. "We've got this harassment and bullying going on for a number of reasons.
"If you're a student, how do you cope with these things?"
School district under fire
The Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state's largest, is being sued by the families of six students who say they were bullied because of their sexual preferences. The school district has experienced a rash of student suicides in recent years.
Saturday's Halloween event is not being held in conjunction with the school district, Fietek said.
"We haven't gotten any response from the school district," he said. "But we haven't necessarily reached out to do any partnering with them.
"I'd rather invest the energy in the kids. We want the focus of this to be 100 percent positive."
Fietek and Aaberg say they are trying to build a community in which kids not only feel safe, but are able to emphasize their talents. They say they will continue to focus on students in the northern suburbs, but are also inviting students from other communities to become involved.
"There's a $3 fee for the event because we want people who really want to be there, and an admissions charge usually keeps others away," Fietek said. "But this is going to be a lengthy process, and we need to spread the message that when it comes to bullying, enough is enough."
Aaberg said that message must be spread to educators, as well. Justin was in the eighth grade when he was grabbed in school, she said. A counselor saw him crying, according to a friend of Justin's.
"The counselor didn't ask for any details," Aaberg said. "I never got a phone call. Nobody ever acknowledged they knew a thing about this."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419