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Dennis Carlson

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The superintendent's statement can be read at www.startribune.com/a1083.

Ready for healing, Anoka schools leader apologizes

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA
  • Star Tribune
  • February 24, 2012 - 7:33 PM

In a move that is part revision and part apology, Anoka-Hennepin schools Superintendent Dennis Carlson has issued a new statement on several student suicides that ripped the district during 2009 and 2010.

Carlson said the act was intended to help bring healing to the beleaguered district. Still, it is clear that the hurt over a previous message, made in 2010, still is felt deeply by those who are grieving their children.

The new statement, which went on the district website Thursday, acknowledges that "there can be no doubt that in many situations bullying is one of the contributing factors" to suicide.

That contrasts with a December 2010 staff voice mail message in which Carlson said, "Based on all of the information we have been able to gather none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment."

Asked whether the statement was an acknowledgment that bullying could have been a factor in some of the suicides in the district or an apology for an insensitively worded initial statement, Carlson said Thursday, "It's a little bit of a combination."

Some of the students who committed suicide were identified by families and friends as gay or were perceived to be gay; some were said to have been bullied.

Bullying and sexual orientation have been high-profile issues in the state's largest district. Anoka-Hennepin is working to resolve a lawsuit filed on behalf of six current and former students who said the district did not adequately respond to their complaints of persistent bullying based on sexual orientation. It also is the subject of an ongoing federal civil rights investigation.

In the past month, the district did away with its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, a flashpoint in the controversy, in favor of a Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy.

In Thursday's statement, Carlson called suicide "a unique and complicated tragedy" that involves multiple factors.

He also said he regretted how his comment 14 months ago, which he said he had hoped would bring in more information about the suicides, was interpreted by many. "If my December 2010 statement was perceived as dismissive or insensitive to victims of bullying or suicide, I deeply and sincerely apologize," he said. "I absolutely meant no disrespect to any of our students and the adults who care about them and love them."

Michele Johnson, whose daughter Samantha died in 2009, said the statement is overdue and reactive.

She responded to a passage at the end, in which Carlson repeated his pledge to ensure all students are safe at school.

"It is my opinion that Superintendent Dennis Carlson is too late in announcing his 'commitment' to always protect and ensure safety of each student," she wrote in an e-mail. "I hope he sticks with it for all of the rest of the children's sake."

Tammy Aaberg, whose son Justin took his own life in July 2010, said she appreciates the withdrawal of the previous statement but said the new statement still doesn't go far enough.

She bristled that anyone would attempt to rank the issues that led to her son's death. "How could he know?" she asked.

Aaberg, who has become a national advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens and for antibullying causes, said she has received e-mails from all over the country that have made clear to her the incredible toll taken, not only by bullying but by the lack of positive portrayal of GLBT people in school curriculum.

"The climate of the school has a lot to do with how mental health is in gay students," she said.

In a way, Carlson echoed one of Aaberg's concerns.

"The more I've dealt with this, the specifics are not necessarily what's important," he said. "What's important is that we move on and that we keep gay kids safe and to the parents of these kids, they've suffered a tremendous loss. The specifics of it are somehow getting in the way of us moving on and making the schools a safer place. I don't want to be dismissive of that."

It is human nature to look for a reason for suicide, said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the suicide prevention organization SAVE.

"Suicide is never just one thing," he said. "Suicide is always complex, and it's always multifaceted. There are many factors that play into a suicide. People don't die just because of the breakup of a relationship; they don't die just because of a poor grade or a speeding ticket, nor do they die just because they're depressed. ... It's when you start adding them all up, that starts increasing the risk for someone."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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