The school district hasn't been anxious for a legal brawl, and the two parties have been in settlement talks practically since the papers were filed. Yet the district still stubbornly clung to the neutrality policy until, at a mid-December school-board meeting, it proposed finally eliminating the policy – claiming the move has nothing to do with the discrimination lawsuit – and, bizarrely, replacing it with the Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy, which requires teachers to not reveal their personal opinions when discussing "controversial topics." The proposal was loudly rejected both by conservatives, who blasted the board for retreating ("The gay activists now have it all," proclaimed one Parents Action League member) and by LGBT advocates, who understood "controversial topics" to mean gays. Faced with such overwhelming disapproval, the board withdrew its proposed policy in January – and suggested a new policy in its place: the Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy, which the board is expected to swiftly approve.
The school district insists it has been portrayed unfairly. Superintendent Carlson points out it has been working hard to address the mental-health needs of its students by hiring more counselors and staff – everything, it seems, but admit that its policy has created problems for its LGBT community. "We understand that gay kids are bullied and harassed on a daily basis," and that that can lead to suicide, Carlson says. "But that was not the case here. If you're looking for a cause, look in the area of mental health." In that sense, the district is in step with PAL. "How could not discussing homosexuality in the public-school classrooms cause a teen to take his or her own life?" PAL asked Rolling Stone in an e-mail, calling the idea "absurd," going on to say, "Because homosexual activists have hijacked and exploited teen suicides for their moral and political utility, much of society seems not to be looking closely and openly at all the possible causes of the tragedies," including mental illness. Arguably, however, it is members of PAL who have hijacked this entire discussion from the very start: Though they've claimed to represent the "majority" opinion on gay issues, and say they have 1,200 supporters, one PAL parent reported that they have less than two dozen members.
Teachers' union president Blaha, who calls the district's behavior throughout this ordeal "irrational," speculates that the district's stupefying denial is a reaction to the terrible notion that they might have played a part in children's suffering, or even their deaths: "I think your mind just reels in the face of that stress and that horror. They just lost their way."
That denial reaches right up to the pinnacle of the local political food chain: Michele Bachmann, who stayed silent on the suicide cluster in her congressional district for months – until Justin's mom, Tammy Aaberg, forced her to comment. In September, while Bachmann was running for the GOP presidential nomination, Aaberg delivered a petition of 141,000 signatures to Bachmann's office, asking her to address the Anoka-Hennepin suicides and publicly denounce anti-gay bullying. Bachmann has publicly stated her opposition to anti-bullying legislation, asking in a 2006 state Senate committee hearing, "What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression?... Will we be expecting boys to be girls?" Bachmann responded to the petition with a generic letter to constituents telling them that "bullying is wrong," and "all human lives have undeniable value." Tammy Aaberg found out about the letter secondhand. "I never got a letter," says Tammy, seated in the finished basement of the Aabergs' new home in Champlin; the family couldn't bear to remain in the old house where Justin hanged himself. "My kid died in her district. And I'm the one that presented the dang petition!" In a closed room a few feet away are Justin's remaining possessions: his cello, in a closet; his soccer equipment, still packed in his Adidas bag. Tammy's suffering hasn't ended. In mid-December, her nine-year-old son was hospitalized for suicidal tendencies; he'd tried to drown himself in the bathtub, wanting to see his big brother again.
Justin's suicide has left Tammy on a mission, transforming her into an LGBT activist and a den mother for gay teens, intent upon turning her own tragedy into others' salvation. She knows too well the price of indifference, or hostility, or denial. Because there's one group of kids who can't afford to live in denial, a group for whom the usual raw teenage struggles over identity, peer acceptance and controlling one's own impulsivity are matters of extreme urgency – quite possibly matters of life or death.
Which brings us to Anoka Middle School for the Arts' first Gay Straight Alliance meeting of the school year, where 19 kids seated on the linoleum floor try to explain to me what the GSA has meant to them. "It's a place of freedom, where I can just be myself," a preppy boy in basketball shorts says. This GSA, Sam Johnson's legacy, held its first meeting shortly after her death under the tutelage of teacher Fietek, and has been a crucial place for LGBT kids and their friends to find support and learn coping skills. Though still a source of local controversy, there is now a student-initiated GSA in every Anoka-Hennepin middle and high school. As three advisers look on, the kids gush about how affirming the club is – and how necessary, in light of how unsafe they continue to feel at school. "I'll still get bullied to the point where–" begins a skinny eighth-grade girl, then takes a breath. "I actually had to go to the hospital for suicide," she continues, looking at the floor. "I just recently stopped cutting because of bullying."
I ask for a show of hands: How many of you feel safe at school? Of the 19 kids assembled, two raise their hands. The feeling of insecurity continues to reverberate particularly through the Anoka-Hennepin middle schools these days, in the wake of the district's ninth suicide. In May, Northdale Middle School's Jordan Yenor, a 14-year-old with no evident LGBT connection, took his life. Psychologist Cashen says that at Northdale Middle alone this school year, several students have been hospitalized for mental-health issues, and at least 14 more assessed for suicidal ideation; for a quarter of them, she says, "Sexual orientation was in the mix."
A slight boy with an asymmetrical haircut speaks in a soft voice. "What this GSA means to me, is: In sixth grade my, my only friend here, committed suicide." The room goes still. He's talking about Samantha. The boy starts to cry. "She was the one who reached out to me." He doubles over in tears, and everyone collapses on top of him in a group hug. From somewhere in the pile, he continues to speak in a trembling voice: "I joined the GSA 'cause I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be nice and – loved."
This story is from the February 16, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
Editors note: If you or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBT youth at 1-866-488-7386. Both hotlines are free, confidential and available 24/7.
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