From ‘No Homo Promo’ to ‘Model for the Nation’
Anoka-Hennepin’s dark past as a “suicide contagion” paves the way for a bully-free future.
By Rachel Janik
On a Monday in August of 2010, Tammy Aaberg stood before the Anoka-Hennepin School Board for the first time. She slowly approached the microphone in a red T-shirt, with a collection of rubber bracelets supporting various causes on her wrist. Her eyes, though nearly covered by her blonde bangs, threatened to overflow with tears. She placed a picture of her son on the desk in front of her, and informed the board that 15-year-old Justin, openly gay, had hanged himself the previous month.
Aaberg told the four board members in attendance that after Justin’s death, she learned of the school’s Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which forbade teachers from mentioning homosexuality in class. She thought the policy had the effect of isolating LGBT students and leaving them to doubt their self-worth; it left teachers confused and ill-equipped to defend bullied gay students, she said. After she finished, Board Chair Tom Heidemann thanked her, and then dismissed the connection she had drawn.
“Just so you know, there are two distinct policies. One’s a curriculum policy, the other’s a bullying policy,” the chairman said. No student in the Anoka-Hennepin district should be harassed for any reason, he added. He argued that teachers should be expected to take immediate disciplinary action if they witness bullying.
“There is no other group that continually seeks to force their way into the school curriculum in every subject matter at every grade level to normalize their unhealthy and unnatural behavior.” — the Minnesota Family Council’s Barbara Anderson told the school board
Despite Heidemann’s insistence that the curriculum policy had no effect on bullying prevention practices, Aaberg wasn’t the only person to make the connection, or to say so that night. Teachers, students, parents and activists had been approaching the board and expressing concern about the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy—nicknamed the “neutrality policy”—since its adoption in 2009.
A short 20-minute drive from Minneapolis’ bustling metro area, the many towns and small cities that make up the Anoka-Hennepin school district are quite diverse. They range from blue-collar to upper class, ethnically diverse to racially homogenous. Secular communities are intertwined with neighborhoods where evangelical influence runs deep.
In the past two years, Anoka-Hennepin and its neutrality policy—so called because it requires teachers to stay “neutral” on issues concerning homosexuality—garnered national attention. The It Gets Better Project, activist Dan Savage’s worldwide campaign to prevent suicide among LGBT youth, cites Justin Aaberg’s death as the first in the infamous string of gay teen suicides nationwide that began in mid-2010.
Within the district, Aaberg’s death was the sixth student suicide since 2009, his mother says, although the total number of suicide deaths through 2012 is contested. National publications like Mother Jones and Rolling Stone reported stories that drew a connection between the neutrality policy and the subsequent deaths. In February, the latter published “One Town’s War on Gay Teens,” an investigative article that sparked interest nationwide and controversy in the district.
The neutrality policy itself has had a colorful history. It was adopted in its original form in 1995 after heavy lobbying from members of the evangelical Christian, conservative Minnesota Family Council, most notably an active representative named Barbara Anderson. Their goal was to stem the flow of what Anderson called “homosexual propaganda” into public schools. By the mid ‘90s, the district successfully passed the policy nicknamed “no homo promo.”
Originally designed as part of the health curriculum, the policy mandated that homosexuality “not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.” It was replaced in 2009, after a high school student named Alex Merritt threatened to sue after he claimed two teachers taunted him with gay slurs. In response, the school board implemented the policy Tammy Aaberg condemned in August 2010.
It reads, “Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions.”
‘Just Because of You?’
That stated goal of neutrality had in fact not been the reality of LGBT students in the district for generations.
In 1984, over a decade before “no homo promo,” Jefferson Fietek was a fifth-grader at University Avenue Elementary School in Blaine, part of the Anoka-Hennepin school district. On that particular day, the skinny, bespectacled 10-year-old was ecstatic. He had just earned the lead role of Tevye in his school’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Fietek left the school building walking on air, but froze as he reached the parking lot. A group of students had gathered, ready to beat up the “fagboy” who got the lead in the play.
Incidents like these were practically routine for Fietek, whose scrawny appearance and interest in the arts made him a regular target for harassment that didn’t end with the students. One teacher in elementary school repeatedly referred to him as “fag” in front of the class, he recalls.
High school was no improvement. Fietek was trapped in the closet. The last thing in the world he wanted was to be gay, because everyone around him seemed to view it so negatively. He knew that if he came out, he wouldn’t be safe.
It wasn’t until college—after a failed suicide attempt—that he finally came out as gay. A few years after graduation, he learned that one of his Anoka-Hennepin classmates, who was gay, had killed himself. Fietek returned to his old high school with a request that the district create a support group for LGBT students.
“The response from this guidance counselor was, ‘There were two of you, and one of you is dead and you want our school to start an LGBT support group, just because of you?’” Fietek says.
Ten years after that visit, a “very out” Jefferson Fietek returned to the district of his youth—not as a student, but a middle school theater teacher. Unaware of the “no homo promo,” he made clear to his employer that he would not go back in the closet. It was only later that another teacher told him that school policy barred staff from doing or saying anything to indicate that being gay was acceptable.
“I said, ‘How the hell am I supposed to navigate that, since I’m out?’” Fietek says. “And she said, ‘You can’t.’”
Us Vs. Them
In 1995, the same year Fietek appealed to the guidance counselor on behalf of LGBT students, Ann Lindsey was a young, idealistic teacher just beginning her time at Anoka-Hennepin. In her second year of teaching, she wrote “GLSEN,” on the board in her math class to explain what she had been doing over the weekend. A student asked what it meant, and she said it was the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, a national organization that works to make schools safer for LGBT students.
The principal called Lindsey to the office and informed her that as an Anoka-Hennepin staff member, she would not be able to use the word “gay” in class. Word spread that staff could be punished for referencing homosexuality in any context, and teachers took care not to mention famous gay figures or gay rights movements, or anything else that might be considered a violation. “It quickly pervaded all of the content area,” Lindsey says.
In 2004, Fietek began working as a teacher in another district middle school five miles away. He soon started hearing students’ accounts of the harassment they experienced because other students perceived them as gay. Fietek tried to help, but matters were complicated because he was unable to be open with students about his sexual orientation, yet he was unwilling to lie.
By the mid ‘90s, the district successfully passed the policy nicknamed “no homo promo.”
Then, in the spring of 2009, a group of middle school students, including a sixth-grade girl named Samantha “Sam” Johnson, approached him about creating a Gay-Straight Alliance, a school club that provides a safe and welcoming space for LGBT students and allies to meet, discuss issues and support each other.
“Our principal was incredibly supportive,” Fietek says. “She said, ‘Do it. You followed all the correct steps.’ Well, we were supposed to meet in September, and then the district shut the meeting down.”
The district told Fietek that he and the students would not be allowed to use the word “gay” in their club name. Officials also said that in order to allow middle school students to participate in a club addressing homosexuality, they would need permission slips from their parents, something no other club required.
Fietek and the students didn’t quit, and they planned their new meeting date for October. Once again the district told them they would not be allowed to meet. The school’s principal, along with Fietek and the students, made it known that they would not accept another delay, and for the third time planned a first meeting, this one in November.
One week before the meeting, Sam Johnson climbed into her bathtub and fired a hunting rifle into her mouth. “She was a girl that was viciously targeted,” Fietek says. Her short haircut and tomboyish appearance became the grounds for brutal anti-gay bullying, whether or not she identified as gay. “So unfortunately instead of our first meeting being this celebration, it was, ‘how do we grieve the fact that we lost one of these members of our group?’”
The Last Straw
Johnson’s suicide was the first in a tragic string. Some students identified or were perceived to identify as LGBT, while others did not. State health officials classified Anoka-Hennepin a suicide contagion area by April 2010.
That July, Justin Aaberg’s death brought the suicide toll to six.
Lindsey and an organized team of parents and faculty—now Anoka-Hennepin’s new Gay Equity Team—planned a barbeque to discuss their concerns and try to form a plan of action to help the students. After everything that happened, though, Fietek and many of the activists felt that it wasn’t enough.
“It was only about a week after Justin died,” Lindsey says. “And that was it. We just decided that it had to end.”
But the crisis was far from over. A month later, Tammy Aaberg made her impassioned speech to the school board. The district started getting media attention, but the situation in Anoka-Hennepin schools deteriorated.
In response to heavy outside criticism, Superintendent Dennis Carlson sent a voicemail out to teachers insisting that none of the suicides could be reasonably linked to bullying. Although certainly not Carlson’s intention, Fietek said he thought that voicemail sent a clear message to victimized students: if you come forward with your harassment, you will be denounced as a liar.
After that, Fietek says, the situation “imploded.” He maintained a mental health hotline on his cellphone, his home phone and his email so students could call if they needed help. His middle school used to deal with a student cutting themselves about once a week, but during the 2010-2011 school year, that number jumped to several incidents a day.
“It was awful,” Fietek says. “I think it really came about from that feeling of hopelessness in the kids, that ‘none of the adults are going to believe us.’”
While Anoka-Hennepin struggled to find a balance in LGBT student rights, nearby Minneapolis Public Schools was perfecting its own system.
Out4Good, a branch of the district’s student services, works to foster LGBT inclusion and equity in education. Fifteen miles south of Anoka-Hennepin, the organization’s program coordinator Jason Bucklin works to create a safe environment for LGBT students in Minneapolis. He keeps a list of what he identifies as four necessary components that make a school safe for gay students.
First, he says that gay-straight alliance clubs should have a presence on campus as a safe space for students to be themselves and discuss issues that matter to them. Second, staff and faculty should be supportive and affirming of LGBT students. Third, school curriculum should include positive examples of LGBT people. Finally, comprehensive policies should be in place that “enumerate and protect all students,” according to Bucklin.
All of these elements were in some way absent from the Anoka-Hennepin district, and staff and community members felt helpless to change it, according to activists in the area.
In 2011, as the situation spun farther out of control, Lindsey, the concerned teacher, picked up the phone and called the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Six students agreed to join in a class action lawsuit against the district after each was severely harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientation. They sued Anoka-Hennepin for its failure to protect them, and for the discrimination they felt they had suffered due to the district’s hostile LGBT policy.
When media gathered for the press conference to announce the lawsuit outside of Jackson Middle School, plaintiff Ebonie Richardson was nervous. She asked Lindsey, her teacher and confidante, to stand with her in front of the cameras. Lindsey agreed, knowing that the stand she took that day could have consequences.
“It felt tense, because we were confronting our superiors,” Lindsey says. “It was a fearful time, because we were saying things publicly that we were taught we should not, or told we could not.”
But they kept speaking. Week after week, activists showed up to school board meetings to argue for a more tolerant school environment. Students told stories of harassment and helplessness, and parents vented frustrations about their children’s suffering being ignored.
They weren’t the only ones fighting to influence school policy, however. The Minnesota Family Council was equally dedicated to keeping the neutrality policy in place. So was its local equivalent, the Parents Action League, a group founded in 2010 as controversy over the neutrality policy began to escalate.
The Fight for ‘Traditional’ Values
The Minnesota Family Council is no stranger to conflict over gay rights. The group is a fierce supporter of the proposed constitutional amendment in the state to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The Council came under fire last year for publishing a legislative manual claiming that LGBT people are more likely to engage in pedophilia, bestiality and consumption of human excrement.
A group of students had gathered, ready to beat up the “fagboy” who got the lead in the play.
By the end of 2011, when the battle over Anoka-Hennepin’s neutrality policy was raging harder than ever, the Council would not stay silent.
In an attempt to appease both LGBT activists and the evangelical right, the school board had proposed a replacement policy called the “controversial topics policy,” which gave educators more authority in moderating classroom discussions about topics like homosexuality. In December, the Minnesota Family Council’s Barbara Anderson approached the board in protest. She wore a festive holiday sweater, her blond bob of hair falling neatly on her shoulders. Glancing down at a sheet of notes through her wire-rimmed glasses, she told the board of her distress.
“Without the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, we will see more homosexual propaganda flooding the classroom,” she explained. “There is no other group that continually seeks to force their way into the school curriculum in every subject matter at every grade level to normalize their unhealthy and unnatural behavior.”
Since she first entered the education activism scene in the ‘90’s, Anderson has worked with the Minnesota Family Council, along with the localized Parents Action League in Anoka-Hennepin, to keep “homosexual propaganda” out of the district. Time and time again, the groups assert that mentioning homosexuality in the classroom means “promoting” it, and that exposing impressionable children to LGBT individuals may encourage them to experiment and “become gay” themselves.
Laurie Thompson and Brian Lindquist, active members of the Parents Action League, have argued at various events and meetings that exposure to homosexuality in schools violates a parent’s fundamental right to conduct their children’s moral upbringing. The Parents Action League declined to comment for this article.
On January 9, Lindquist and another colleague, Mike Skaalerud, approached the board with a presentation asking that Anoka-Hennepin schools give “students of faith, moral conviction and ex-gays and ex-transgenders” a place in the district. They also advocated district-sponsored training for counselors and administrative staff that emphasized the scientifically debunked programs of ex-gay and ex-transgender therapy.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the Parents Action League as a hate group, a title Anderson called a “badge of honor.” In an interview with Mission America president Linda Harvey, she suggested that the SPLC itself should be considered a hate group for putting “pro-family, pro-traditional values” organizations on that list.
‘Those 200 Words’
While the two opposing activist groups clashed, average community members struggled to make sense of turmoil erupting in the district.
The president of the local teachers union, Julie Blaha, has lived in Anoka-Hennepin almost her whole life. Initially, she was surprised by the tragedy of one suicide after another and the school board’s reaction to the so-labeled contagion.
“They really had it in their heads that inaction wouldn’t hurt them,” she says. “Looking back it’s just devastating, and I wish I could have done more to convince them that they had to make a change.”
The district told [Jefferson] Fietek that he and the students would not be allowed to use the word “gay” in their club name.
The teachers union, called Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota, approached the board on numerous occasions to express its concern with the neutrality policy and the environment it fostered in schools. Blaha spoke about the teachers’ code of ethics, and how important it was that each child be treated with respect no matter their sexual orientation.
As someone involved in lobbying the school about budget decisions, Blaha suggests that the school board was worried about taxes when they considered upholding the neutrality policy and “no homo promo.” Whenever the district needed to bring a tax levy up for a vote, they were worried about alienating citizens who favored the neutrality policy.
“People whose views would otherwise seem to be extreme or harmful were given credence because you have to go to voters for your very, very basic needs,” she said. “Someone who I won’t name once told me, ‘Well, we’ve got taxpayers on one side and students on the other, so we’ve got to sit on the fence.’”
Blaha said she thought that was absurd. Students always come first, she says that she is saddened that a school board she still highly respects made such “bewildering” decisions about potentially problematic policies. “We had a lot of warning,” she says, “and yet we just couldn’t let those 200 words go.”
The tragedies and resulting lawsuit in Anoka-Hennepin should serve as a warning to other districts where LGBT policies may come under fire from right-wing officials, according to Blaha.
“Don’t let school boards and districts get distracted by political issues and funding concerns, because they could end up missing the big picture.”
‘Raising the Bar’
The school board reconsidered the policy after the lawsuit was filed, and even then only after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education.
Both the SPLC and the U.S. Department of Justice held that the district was violating federal law under Title IX by denying LGBT students equal protection. Title IX, the famous mandate that allowed girls to play sports, ensures a non-discriminatory school environment for male and female students. It also stipulates that gender non-conforming behavior be protected. In this case, the SPLC and the Department of Justice said that provision extends to sexual orientation and gender identification.
On March 5, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board approved a consent decree and settled both the SPLC lawsuit and the Department of Justice complaint. The six plaintiffs were awarded a lump sum of $270,000, and the district was mandated to implement a series of reforms. The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice will be monitoring their compliance for the next five years.
According to the SPLC, these reforms include providing staff training to address anti-LGBT bias, hiring harassment prevention officials and collaborating with the Great Lakes Equity Center, a federally-funded center that supports equity and civil rights in schools, to assess harassment “hot spots” and promote equal opportunities in education.
The district has hired a Title IX coordinator, Jennifer Cherry, to ensure that no student is discriminated against on the grounds of sex, gender or compliance to gender norms. Cherry will also be conducting an anti-bullying task force this school year. Barry Scanlan, the prevention coordinator and trauma response coordinator for the district, says Anoka-Hennepin has emerged much stronger in light of a tumultuous couple of years.
“We’re raising the bar,” he says. “What we are doing right now is going to be a model for the nation.”
Even with the lawsuit settled, however, the details of exactly what happened and who is to blame are still sensitive subjects in Anoka-Hennepin. Many members of the board and of the community maintain that incidents of bullying, incidents of suicide and the curriculum policy were entirely unrelated.
Experts like Nancy Riestenberg, a school climate specialist for Minnesota’s Department of Education, caution people against drawing too clear a connection between bullying and suicide. The issue is complex, Riestenberg says, and sensationalized coverage perpetuates the misconception that bullying causes suicide.
Fietek, who grew up struggling to come to terms with his own sexual orientation, adds that LGBT students face greater hurdles than bullying alone, including having to struggle with a culture that has rejected them. Whether gay or straight, he says, the effects of bullying can be extreme if the problem isn’t addressed.
“Does bullying lead to suicide? Not necessarily,” Fietek says. “But does unaddressed bullying ultimately lead to some sort of tragedy? Often.”
Blaha is also optimistic about the Justice Department’s decision—especially the newfound power it gives teachers in dealing with bullying and other tough subjects.
“After talking about it more and working through the policy, we got to a point where teachers just said, ‘I don’t care any more, I’m just going to do what’s right,’” she says. “We went from, ‘I don’t know what to do to help,’ to ‘I’m going to do what I think is right.’”
Tammy Aaberg too hopes for the best for Anoka-Hennepin, and has decided to keep her younger son, Anthony, in the district. Despite what she considered dismissive and callous treatment by the school board, she is continuing to work to make the district safer for gay students.
But even though Anoka-Hennepin has mostly moved on, and even though the Aabergs have moved houses, as Tammy Aaberg sits at her kitchen table, the echo of Justin is everywhere.
He kept a poster in his room that read, “Love the life you live, live the life you love.” Those words are now etched on his tombstone, the poster laminated and treated with care. The Australian Shepherd puppy Justin chose as a child, named for her amber eyes, is grown and lies loyally at Tammy’s feet. And every second of silence recalls the music that filled the house when Justin practiced his cello.
“I really miss that,” Aaberg says, fighting tears. “He really loved playing his cello, and I wish…I just really wish I could hear it again.”