Jefferson Fietek never shied away from the spotlight.

The Anoka Middle School for the Arts theater teacher emerged as an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ students during a federal probe into anti-gay bullying in Minnesota's largest school district. He created a support group to honor one of the nine students who took his own life, and he criticized the administration for its handling of harassment.

"LGBTQ students don't feel safe at school," Fietek, who is openly gay, told Rolling Stone magazine in 2012. "And there's no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired."

But all along, the district may have been failing to protect ­students from Fietek himself.

The 47-year-old former teacher has been charged with 10 felony counts of sexual abuse of minors spanning a decade. According to court documents, the five male victims are either former middle school students or participants in a theater nonprofit Fietek co-founded that operates out of a St. Paul church.

The criminal investigation did not begin until a former student went public with the alleged abuse in 2020. But the Star Tribune has learned that on three previous occasions, school officials or leaders of the Young Artists Initiative had been warned about Fietek's close relationships with male students. One specific allegation of sexual abuse was made in 2009.

"It was like a big, bad monster that was in the room the whole time," said Amy Mills, a parent who said she anonymously warned school officials in 2016 about Fietek's behavior toward male students. "Why on earth did nobody else see it?"

The Anoka-Hennepin School District declined to comment, citing the active criminal case. Spokesman Jim Skelly said the district has three complaints about Fietek on file, but they did not result in disciplinary action and were not related to the criminal ­allegations.

Fietek referred an interview request to his attorney, Jack Rice.

"We deny all allegations and we look forward to the trial that will be coming in the future," Rice said.

Each alleged victim's case will be tried separately. On Friday, Judge Kristin Larson scheduled a jury trial for Oct. 4, but she encouraged attorneys to continue settlement discussions.

District in turmoil

Between 2009 and 2011, nine students in the Anoka-Hennepin district died by suicide. Their deaths prompted a Department of Justice investigation into anti-gay bullying and harassment. The district ultimately agreed to a five-year consent decree that required it to submit annual compliance reports showing plans for preventing and addressing sex-based harassment, retain an expert in the area of mental health, and improve records of investigations and response to allegations of harassment.

Fietek told Mother Jones in 2011 that seven of his students had been hospitalized for attempting or threatening suicide.

He taught at Anoka Middle School for the Arts from 2005 until 2019, when he took a job at Boston's Emerson College. From 2012 to 2019, he was also an adjunct professor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

He emerged as an advocate while teaching at the middle school. He advised the school's Gay Straight Alliance and spoke out against a district policy — repealed as part of the DOJ resolution — that required teachers to remain neutral on the topic of sexual orientation.

Dana Castonguay, whose children attended Anoka Middle School for the Arts, said Fietek's students "absolutely worshiped him."

"We watched our kids suffer when their friends committed suicide," Castonguay said, "and he was this teacher who was sort of a defender for them and an advocate."

Kyle Rooker, 24, was one of six student plaintiffs in the DOJ lawsuit against the school district. He was 14 at the time and didn't identify as gay, but the perception that he was made him a target of bullying and abuse.

Rooker credits Fietek for encouraging him to join the lawsuit.

"Jefferson Fietek was my theater teacher for one semester, but in that one semester, he had given me a sense of security and self-validation that was really special to me," he said.

In interviews, former students, parents and educators said they've struggled to reconcile the abuse allegations with Fietek's history of advocating for marginalized students. But another teacher who worked with Fietek to try to overturn the district's neutrality policy said Fietek made him "uncomfortable."

Peter Gokey was an openly bisexual teacher at Blaine High School in 2010 when he formed the Gay Equity Team, consisting of staff members — including Fietek — concerned about the neutrality policy. Gokey said he ended up leaving the team partly because "Jefferson had left a very bad taste in my mouth."

"It was like he was doing it to exorcise his own demons, or he was doing it for his own purposes rather than doing it just for the sake of the students," Gokey said. "He was taking on this heroism that just seemed out of place."

Fietek's prominence soon outgrew the classroom and theater stage. He gave an address at the White House in 2011 for the U.S. Department of Education's first-ever LGBTQ youth summit. He won a national award for LGBTQIA Youth Advocate Educator of the Year in 2013. He ran unsuccessfully as a DFL candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2014. He was featured in the New York Times, CNN and an award-winning 2015 documentary on LGBTQ youth, "Same Difference," that featured the story of Justin Aaberg, an Anoka High School student who died by suicide in 2010 at age 15.

Tammy Aaberg, Justin's mother, said she first met Fietek at her son's funeral. The following year, they co-founded Justin's Gift, an LGBTQ support group.

She said she feels the nonprofit formed in honor of her son is tarnished because of Fietek's involvement.

"I question now everything he's ever said to me," she said.

Nicholas Senn, 25, Fietek's former fiancé, said the middle school teacher's leadership and prominence in the community were magnetic.

"He was influential in the theater community [and] political community, he was part of Justin's Gift, he was a teacher," said Senn, who was a senior at Champlin Park High School when he met Fietek, then more than twice Senn's age, at a Justin's Gift event. "And I think that lowered a lot of people's guards as well as mine."

An influential figure

Before publicly accusing Fietek of abuse last year, Jacob Tighe spent years questioning his relationship with the man who was both his teacher and mentor when he was a sixth-grader at Anoka Middle School for the Arts.

Tighe, 25, had a passion for theater, and got good roles in productions. He recalled Fietek praising his performances — and appearance.

"When I turned 14 was when it really started becoming noticeable," said Tighe, whose June social media post detailing alleged abuse by Fietek spurred the criminal investigation.

In high school, Tighe began spending time at Fietek's house, which he, like other alleged victims, described in a criminal complaint as being full of Peter Pan and Muppet memorabilia.

Tighe said he first got close to Fietek when preparing his speech for a school board meeting to speak out against anti-gay bullying, which he too faced — not because he was gay but because of the way he dressed.

Still, Fietek convinced Tighe that he was gay, Tighe said. And he believed him.

"A harder point to reconcile is that there were good things that he did," Tighe said. "And the whole time along the sidelines of those amazing things he was doing, he was also destroying the lives of young boys."

A decade of alleged abuse

In court documents, Fietek is charged with abusing five victims between 2009 and 2019, when he left the district for an assistant professor job at Emerson College — a job he lost after the criminal accusations surfaced. Fietek was extradited back to Anoka County last fall and remains under GPS surveillance.

One of the alleged victims is still in high school and accuses Fietek of abusing him as Fietek was preparing to move to Boston in the summer of 2019. Another said he met Fietek on the Grindr dating app when he was 14. And detectives contacted one former student based on text messages in which Fietek described performing oral sex on him.

The parents of some of the alleged victims said they trusted Fietek spending time with their sons outside of school, according to the complaint. One told detectives they thought Fietek was a "good influence," and one mother said they worked on Fietek's political campaign. "He did not tell anyone because he thought no one would believe him due to Defendant's reputation and him being an activist for so many students," said Victim E's statement to detectives.

According to the criminal complaint, the abuse took place in the costume storage closet at the middle school theater department as well as at Fietek's Coon Rapids home. All the victims were minors at the time of the abuse and described Fietek sexually assaulting them on multiple occasions; two told detectives that when they turned 16, Fietek told them they had reached the age of consent.

The earliest allegation of abuse dates back to 2009, when Zander Danielson Sellie, then 14, published a Facebook post accusing Fietek of molestation.

Sellie — who uses the pronouns they/them — was enrolled in the Young Artists Initiative, which operates out of First Lutheran Church in St. Paul's Dayton's Bluff neighborhood.

In response to the Facebook post, leaders with YAI and First Lutheran called a meeting where Fietek and four other adults associated with the nonprofit discussed proper use of social media and Sellie's mental health.

Sellie and their mother, Bev Danielson Sellie, say the alleged abuse was not addressed. Instead, they said, Zander Sellie was asked to take a break from the program and not contact anyone there while Fietek continued directing.

Benjamin Lacina, who co-founded the Young Artists Initiative with Fietek and at the time was employed in the Anoka-Hennepin district, was one of the adults present at the meeting. In 2019, Tighe told Lacina that a middle school teacher had abused him; Facebook messages provided to the Star Tribune show Lacina shared the school district reporting page but did not encourage Tighe to report the abuse to law enforcement.

Now a St. Paul Public Schools supervisor, Lacina did not respond to requests for comment.

Lacina and the other adults present at the 2009 meeting were not mandated reporters in that setting outside of school — a continuing loophole in Minnesota law that Sellie has testified in support of closing. Brenda Olson Bingea, the church's development director who was at the meeting, declined interview requests but provided a statement:

"Our prayers and support are with all those who have been victims of sexual abuse in our communities. Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, we cannot comment further at this time."

The warnings

Amy Mills remembers stepping outside in her backyard and screaming when she first heard about the criminal charges against Fietek.

"It was just a wave of complete anger," she said.

As an Anoka Middle School for the Arts parent, Mills often volunteered for school play productions. The first time she met Fietek, she said, she immediately felt something was wrong.

"It became very clear to me really quickly how much control he had in his role, and how much he used that in a lot of different ways," Mills said.

In May 2016, Mills anonymously reported to Principal Jerri McGonigal that she was concerned about Fietek rubbing male students' shoulders and taking them out after school. She said McGonigal's immediate reaction was that Fietek loved his students.

"She just was really defending him," Mills said, adding that McGonigal then asked Mills if she thought any children were in harm's way.

"As much as I wanted to scream 'yeah,' I didn't have any physical proof in order to say that," Mills said.

Mills said she and her husband decided not to allow their 9-year-old son to participate in theater productions because of how much attention Fietek paid to him while simultaneously ignoring their daughter, who was active in theater.

The school district declined multiple requests to interview McGonigal, who is still serving as the school's principal, citing the ongoing investigation.

Kristine Riley never had any proof either. But in 2016, she called the school district about concerns over Fietek — her brother — "having little boys alone," and one situation specifically in which Fietek had taken a boy to an R-rated movie.

After Riley went to the school district, Fietek accused his sister of being homophobic — his "go-to excuse" for anyone who questioned him, Riley said.

Fietek's nephew, Josh Masterson, said he remembered his uncle telling him his aunt was homophobic — something Masterson believed until the allegations surfaced last summer.

"She really saw this stuff coming," Masterson said.

The aftermath

The allegations against Fietek have left some who once thought of him as an advocate reeling.

Rooker, one of the student plaintiffs in the DOJ lawsuit, said he fears the charges against Fietek could be weaponized by people who wrongly see links between sexual orientation and pedophilia. "This district is kind of proof of the harm that homophobic rhetoric can cause," he said.

State Auditor Julie Blaha, who led the Anoka-Hennepin teachers union during the DOJ investigation, said this case is not about Fietek being gay — rather, it's a case study in why movements shouldn't turn their leaders into heroes.

"Adoration can trap vulnerable people into silence," she said.

Tighe moved to Utah with his girlfriend and two dogs last March. He said he moved out West to be near the mountains, not escape his trauma — instead, it was there that he was finally able to confront what happened.

"It's more intense than I ever thought it could be, but I'm handling it well," he said. "Most of the time, I put my head down, I work and I play with my dogs and I kiss my girlfriend, and we're all good, you know?"

Both Tighe and Sellie said they plan to testify at trial. Their hope is that Fietek will be convicted and others will be spared what they experienced.

Tighe said coming forward after spending his teenage years "hiding this massive secret" has been overwhelming, but he's glad he's not doing it alone.

"It's hard to come to terms with the fact that this could have been stopped," he said. "I feel like I dropped the ball waiting 10 years to actually say something. I know that's not the case, but I wish I could have said something sooner."

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated the Anoka-Hennepin school district official to whom Kristine Riley reported concerns about Jefferson Fietek in 2016. The official was Superintendent David Law.