There was a time when Justin Anderson pondered suicide.

During his freshman and sophomore years at Blaine High School, he hadn't quite come to terms with being gay. He needed help. But how do you go about getting it?

"I wanted to talk to someone, but I was too scared to seek someone out," said the 18-year-old, now a student at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. "When I was closeted going through high school and middle school, I never heard anything positive about a gay person or a positive portrayal of gay issues. Only that gays were Holocaust victims."

Recent news about GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender)-related suicides involving high school students in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, as well as a Rutgers University student who plunged to his death off New York City's George Washington Bridge, have brought into sharp focus the pressures that can haunt GLBT youth.

In Anoka-Hennepin early this week, GLBT advocates charged that school officials are not doing enough to support GLBT students. They targeted a district policy stating that sexual orientation isn't part of the district curriculum and therefore teachers should remain "neutral" in dealing with such issues.

Advocates said seven suicides in the past year by students who attended or were connected with Anoka-Hennepin schools added a sense of urgency to their campaign. Four of those suicides, they said, were "based on their perceived GLBT orientation."

GLBT students are often harassed. Many struggle with their own identity. They're also considered to be at higher risk for suicide than other students. A local gay-advocacy group says nearly two-thirds of metro area school districts don't include sexual orientation in their harassment policies.

Nationwide, two-thirds of GLBT students report feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 90 percent report harassment at school, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reports. Reports of harassment haven't decreased over time, the network says.

"Too few districts are taking action to make schools safe for kids to learn," said Eliza Byard, the group's executive director. "This is not a political issue. Young people deserve support. They deserve equal educational opportunities."

Yet GLBT students and advocates say conditions have generally improved in area schools. Gay-Straight Alliances and GLBT support groups are more common, and there's more media coverage of GLBT people and issues.

"You now see gay people out in the culture," said gay St. Paul psychologist Stephen Parker, who works with GLBT patients.

No consistency across schools

But the issue of how to address GLBT students in school remains controversial.

"I don't think parents want their kids indoctrinated in homosexuality," Minnesota Family Council President Tom Prichard said, adding that teachers shouldn't advocate or affirm that homosexuality is acceptable, but rather present a range of views.

With teacher sensitivity training inconsistent from district to district and some parents concerned schools are pushing a GLBT agenda, many teachers remain unsure what to appropriately say to teens.

"Teachers have a very careful line to walk about personal beliefs and what to educate students," Eagan High Principal Polly Reikowski said.

Among 32 Twin Cities metro school districts, 20 don't include sexual orientation in harassment policies, according to the Family Equality Council's Minneapolis office, formerly called Rainbow Families.

The Anoka-Hennepin district's "neutral" policy reflects the complexity schools face in dealing with the issue.

In 2009 the district modified a policy that prohibited teachers from discussing homosexuality "as a normal, valid lifestyle" in classes. The change to a "neutral" policy was praised by Minnesota GLBT advocacy groups, including OutFront Minnesota.

"We picked a position that we're not going to deal with it," Anoka-Hennepin School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said of the new policy. "These are issues that can be dealt with outside the classroom."

Heidemann said the policy move also reflected concerns among some parents that the district not be put in a position of advocating a GLBT lifestyle.

No other metro-area districts contacted by the Star Tribune have a similar "neutral" policy.

Supporting students

For Justin Anderson, things improved at Blaine during his junior and senior years.

Juniors and seniors seemed more accepting of GLBT students. Once he made it known he was gay, his friends didn't turn away from him. A new principal threw support behind a Gay-Straight Alliance student group, allowing it to put up posters and announce meetings.

While Prichard disagrees that such clubs belong in schools -- "it's sad and harmful for kids to celebrate homosexuality when in fact it's not a healthy lifestyle," he said -- Phil Duran of OutFront Minnesota said the popularity of such groups is positive.

"[They] reflect that students more frequently are a) more aware of GLBT students in their school and b) want to change the climate," Duran said.

Many metro-area schools have similar clubs, and others are taking additional steps to look out for GLBT students. At Eagan High, some teachers designate classrooms as "safe zones." In St. Paul, the school district's Out for Equity GLBT-focused program is one of five in the nation. In Minneapolis schools, participation in a GLBT advocacy group, Out4Good, and other groups has grown. Since 1999, Gay-Straight Alliances have increased from two or three to seven.

Problems persist

Despite more school programs, local GLBT students still face harassment, or worse.

Caleb Craig, 17, said teachers could have been "saving graces" for a friend of his, a gay teen who recently committed suicide.

"He had absolutely no one to talk to," the gay Andover High School senior said. "It's incredibly, incredibly important that teachers demonstrate that ... [school is] a safe zone, even if students are going to be jerks."

Rachel Ebert, 17, a Blaine High School senior attending Anoka-Hennepin's Secondary Technical Education Program this year, said as a lesbian she has faced some name-calling and ostracism. Posters advertising Gay-Straight Alliance are often torn down, and friends of hers have reported food being thrown at them in the cafeteria.

But Ben Kercheval, 17, a senior at St. Paul's Avalon School, says he's been lucky and has rarely been harassed, thanks to a supportive home and school.

"I've never felt pressured from my peers to be anything else than I am, and that's amazing," Kercheval said. "I understand the reason for teachers to keep politically neutral. But ... it's not a political issue ... it's a human issue."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547 Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141