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‘Same Difference’ contrasts the way Anoka, Ann Arbor dealt with bullying

Almost exactly four years ago a teacher sat down with a reporter at a Caribou Coffee in one of Anoka County’s islands of concrete. It was hot, and Jefferson Fietek was exceptionally matter of fact as he described the prior school year.

He had buried three middle schoolers who took their own lives, coped with the hospitalization of another seven of his students who’d attempted suicide and operated, essentially, an ad hoc crisis prevention hotline out of his home.

All told, eight Anoka-Hennepin School District students died after being bullied because of perceived sexual orientation or gender identity issues. At the time, Fietek was one of a relatively small circle working to change the situation, which had yet to generate headlines. He was out on a skinny limb indeed talking to a reporter.

As he narrated the tragedies I imagined a gay boy who’d been there and who — grown up and faced with kids who might not make it to the safe harbor of adulthood — managed to get up and face each new day thanks largely to titanium skin.

It was with utter astonishment that I listened the other day while Fietek — this time on video on a screening copy of the brand-new documentary, “Same Difference” —explained that one of the kids being harassed was his own teenaged son, an abuse survivor Fietek adopted.

That son called while Fietek and I were talking — wondering about dinner, the teacher said as he put his phone back in his pocket. We made a little small talk about parenting teenagers before resuming the interview. I had no idea he might have picked up the call because he was sick with worry.

Screening twice tomorrow night — that’s Friday, July 17 — “Same Difference” chronicles the 2010-2011 epidemic of student suicides in Anoka-Hennepin. While you are there, find Fietek, one of the film’s protagonists, and give him a big hug.

Justin’s Gift

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

Hand him a big check, too, for Justin’s Gift, the small nonprofit started in honor of one of the late students, Justin Aaberg, who died five years ago at the age of 15. Via the efforts of Fietek and others, the fledgling organization has worked to create dances, Pride festivals and other safe spaces for LGBT teens, students of nonconforming genders and other young people who are concerned about school climate.

“Same Difference” contrasts Aaberg’s and Fietek’s experiences with those of a boy coming out in a school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that embraced him wholeheartedly. Their markedly different experiences makes the intended point, but it’s not what Twin Cities viewers will value about the film.

I spent months talking to teens, parents, teachers and administrators in the district during the crisis, yet I had heard a fraction of the detail narrated in the film. Which is, I think, telling.

At the time, the district administration was simultaneously excusing itself from investigating and insisting none of the suicide victims was bullied. So we didn’t know Aaberg was stabbed in the groin with pencils and cornered repeatedly in a notoriously isolated passageway at school. We didn’t know his phone vibrated long into the wee hours the night he hung himself.

Ambivalence over enforcement

The Anoka-Hennepin district is still plagued by official ambivalence about enforcing not just its own anti-bullying policies — adopted with the world quite literally looking on. And some schools have become affirming much more quickly than others.

But what a difference five years and a landmark federal civil rights suit make, huh? Just the fact that a documentarian would make a film like “Same Difference” and that it would screen at film festivals sends a message to Anoka County’s young people: People are watching, and they believe you.

“Same Difference” screens at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 17, at First Congregational UCC of Anoka, 1923 Third Ave. S., Anoka. A $5 donation is suggested. Credit cards will be accepted for admission and a silent auction to benefit Justin’s Gift. The screening is co-sponsored by Twin Cities Pride. 

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Tanquist on 07/16/2015 - 11:42 am.

    Screening Time 6:30 or 7:30?

    Can someone clarify the earlier screening time? The image in the article says it’s at 6:30 p.m. but the italicized text at the end says it’s at 7:30.

  2. Submitted by Kirk Taylor on 07/16/2015 - 03:13 pm.

    “…embraced him wholeheartedly.”

    Thank you for your excellent article, Beth Hawkins, and thank you, Tammy Aaberg and Jefferson Fietek, for all you have done to help Anoka-Hennepin youth be safe.

    I am the father of the boy from Ann Arbor whom Ms. Hawkins mentioned. When Graeme Taylor came out in 2010 as a ninth grader at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, the support he received rested on the shoulders of action that had occurred a year earlier. That’s when a climate survey had been released “designed to bring to light” realities experienced by LGBT students in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

    That survey helped cause the AAPS Board of Education to include sexual orientation in its anti-bullying policy.

    (Funny, isn’t there a senator out your way who has been attempting to do the same on the Federal level?)

    When you watch Same Difference and begin to better understand the harsh truth of what caused Justin Aaberg and other Anoka-Hennepin students to take their lives, and to cause others to attempt or contemplate suicide, know that my son’s contrasting story did not happen accidentally. It happened because a carefully conducted study caused adults to do what should always be their foremost mission when it comes to youth: keep them safe.

    PS Anoka-Hennepin students, please note that the Ann Arbor climate study was established and conducted by a group of high school students along with an adult collaborator from the University of Michigan.

    PPS keep a box of tissues handy when you watch Same Difference.

    • Submitted by Tammy Aaberg on 07/16/2015 - 03:46 pm.

      Response to Kirk


      Surprisingly, I believe it was 2009, an Anoka High School student did a similar survey and research project on school climate for LGBT youth in the school and, I can’t remember exact details, he wasn’t allowed to verbally give it to class or publish it. So still, Graeme’s school was allowing the students to do more than they did here. Who knows, maybe if this student was allowed to publish his data or the district were to embrace it and do something positive, there could be some kids still alive today up here. I did not know this part of Graeme’s story.

  3. Submitted by Jim Boulay on 07/17/2015 - 05:14 am.

    Standing with the marginalized

    I hope the LGBTQ kids and any other marginalized kids who are bullied at ANY Minnesota school understand now that there are a majority of people in Minnesota who are proudly standing shoulder to shoulder with them against these hate filled fundamentalists that want to impose their “religious freedom” on the rest of us. We fought to stop the anti-gay marriage amendment by not fighting but by having conversations about what love and marriage meant to people! Win people over with love because LOVE IS THE LAW!

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