MinnPost 10 at 10: Beth Hawkins looks back at covering student suicides in Anoka-Hennepin schools

RIP Justin Aaberg Facebook page
15-year-old Justin Aaberg hanged himself in 2010 following incidents of bullying.

To mark MinnPost’s 10th anniversary, our writers and editors have dug into the archives to highlight stories that have stuck with them over the years, a series we’re calling MinnPost 10 at 10.

Today, we hear from former education reporter Beth Hawkins about her 2011 coverage of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where eight students had killed themselves over a two-year period:

In 2011, I wrote a story about the wave of student suicides that had swept through the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where an overwhelming number of adults in schools believed that the “no-promo-homo” policy adopted by the school board meant that they could not intervene in the bullying or harassment of students for their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

I defy you to read this recent story and not have some feelings about the fact that I am still writing about adult LGBT bullying in the northern suburban school system. That’s six-plus years and how many dead teens later?

I have kids around the ages of some of the teens depicted or quoted in this story. The minutia of reporting this piece haunts me to this day. One of the suicide victims was 12, for instance. I had a 12-year-old that year. She took off the new clothes her mother had just bought her before lying down in the bathtub with a shotgun. What a mix of childlike respect for the rules — my son totally would have done the same — and the kind of profound hopelessness we don’t want to associate with children.

I have a vivid memory of finally getting one of the teens who sued the district – just got on the internet and got herself a couple of big-name public interest law firms, NBD – to sit down with me. She’d slept through my efforts to pick her up at her family’s rundown little split-level several days running before I banged loud enough to wake her.

We went to Perkins and she had chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream, chocolate syrup AND regular syrup. Blue hair akimbo and lint stuck to her sugary fingers, she explained very calmly to me that the problem with the district brass’ handling of her complaint was that they wanted her to hide, but she knew the best way to combat the bullies was to be out. And to know enough about LGBT history and culture to be proud about it.

Beth Hawkins
MinnPost photo by Andrew Wallmeyer
Beth Hawkins

Again, that juxtaposition of the impossibly youthful and the unbelievably worldly.

This story was one of the first to take more than a cursory look at the problem, and MinnPost made sure it was read far and wide. I don’t know whether its publication played a part, but things moved swiftly after that to a technical resolution, a settlement of the teens’ lawsuit.

Like so many moments I shared with the incredibly talented MinnPost staff over the years, this story made me a better reporter and writer, a better parent and a better person. I brought all of my outrage, grief and astonishment — parental, personal and political — at the situation and at the kids’ courage in confronting it to the task of putting this story together.

A lesser set of editors would have suggested I tamp down my feelings. MinnPost’s told me to tap them.

Rarely has a civic-minded little publication put so many committed people in one place and given them the freedom to focus entirely on the journalism. And never has a loyal cadre of readers stepped up and responded so enthusiastically — or been so involved with their news and its carriers.

It was a hell of a ride, and it was my privilege to be part it. 

MinnPost 10 at 10

Hawkins, who wrote for MinnPost from 2007 to 2015, is currently a senior writer and national correspondent for The 74, a nonpartisan news site focused on education in America. She has won numerous national and regional awards, including recognition from the Education Writers Association and the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. Her work has appeared in  More, Mother Jones, the Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report, Edutopia, EducationNext, the Hechinger Report and numerous other outlets. 

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 11/14/2017 - 10:17 am.

    Thank you

    Powerful journalism that made a difference!

  2. Submitted by Wes Davey on 11/14/2017 - 06:03 pm.

    My thanks also

    Ironically, Justin’s life might have been saved. In 2009 our State Legislature passed a bipartisan law that would have helped stop bullying of gays in our schools. Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed that law, and with it, he vetoed the hope of many gay teens for a normal school life.

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