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Bullying gay and lesbian kids: How a school district became a suicide contagion area

At least seven Anoka-Hennepin School District students have committed suicide, and friends and parents of bullied victims say adults at the schools knew about harassment but did nothing.

Sarah Lindstrom and Desiree Shelton shown during the Snow Days celebration processional at Champlin Park High School.
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Sarah Lindstrom and Desiree Shelton at Snow Days, Champlin Park High School.

Last spring, Desiree Shelton got an e-mail from a girl in France who had read an article about her. The e-mail was in French, and it took Shelton a little while to find someone to translate it. The gist was that Shelton’s sudden, unexpected moment of fame made the French girl happy, and she hoped the two could be Facebook friends.

What Shelton did to make headlines around the globe was to sue her school district for refusing to let her walk in a pep-rally processional with her girlfriend. As part of the annual Snow Days celebration, their classmates had elected them to the royal court. But the principal thought the sight of the two holding hands might upset people.

Shelton, however, wanted to do it precisely because she thought it might make people — gay and lesbian teens in particular — feel better. During the previous 18 months, at least seven Anoka-Hennepin School District students had committed suicide — enough to cause the state to declare it a suicide contagion area. A number of the victims were gay or lesbian or perceived as so, or didn’t dress according to their gender, and were bullied for it at school or online. Their friends and parents said adults at their schools knew about the harassment but did nothing.

Not too long ago, a teenaged lesbian like Shelton would probably have been too isolated to do anything but crawl back into her closet. But that was before the internet, before Facebook and texting, and most definitely before an 18-year-old would go home to her working-class subdivision, tell her mom the story and get a categorical response like, “That’s bullshit. You need to go get them.”

Times have changed. Within 24 hours, Shelton had not one but three law firms — the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Faegre & Benson — pressing her case for free. The volunteer lawyers stayed up all night getting the paperwork in order and on Friday, January 28, filed a federal civil rights suit against the district.

The next day, Shelton and her girlfriend, Sarah Lindstrom, and their attorneys, met with district leaders and U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richards Nelson in Nelson’s Minneapolis chambers. After a single hour of mediation, the young women won the right to participate in the royal processional.

The following Monday afternoon, they entered the field house at Champlin Park High School in black suits and cotton-candy pink ties, to thunderous applause. Several of their friends had stayed up all night painting dozens of signs. At the end of the processional and coronation, they were thronged by reporters. Shelton recalls feeling nervous, and a little bad for upstaging the Snow Days queen, who watched the media crush quietly with some friends.

Afterward, Shelton got hundreds of letters from all over the world, which helped her brush off the few anonymous internet haters. She was even recognized at the local Target where she worked by a mother and daughter who stopped to congratulate her.

Snow Days only lasted a week, however. And a few days after the royal court retired, things went back to normal. LGBT kids were bullied every day, and often got no support or protection from their teachers, who believed district policy required them to stay out of it. Administrators, meanwhile, maintained they had received no reports of harassment. There were two more suicides, and lots of kids hospitalized for trying.

When Shelton’s and Lindstrom’s walk turned out not to be the watershed moment many had hoped for, their lawyers filed suit on behalf of five more students who complain they are the victims of ongoing physical and verbal harassment. This time they are demanding permanent changes to district policy. The U.S. departments of Justice and Education are also pursuing parallel investigations into Anoka-Hennepin’s civil rights record.

Shelton still has the signs her friends made for Snow Days in her room in her mom’s peacock blue split-level in Champlin. Her life plan is a work in progress, but at 19 she’s clear about one thing: School administrators may think hiding is the safest plan for gay and lesbian kids, but the only way young people like her survive such a hostile environment is by acquiring — and modeling — self-respect.

“I think they don’t understand that keeping us in the closet and making us hide who we are — that’s not protecting us,” she says. “As soon as I grew into my own skin, I realized I can’t keep living the way I was. I needed to stand up for myself.”

‘They’re letting the bullies get away with it’
Damien McGee-Backes is straight, but his dads, Michael McGee and Jason Backes, are gay. Three years ago the family was living in New Hampshire when McGee’s job was eliminated. His best options for a new one were Virginia or Minnesota. Virginia isn’t terribly LGBT-friendly, but a little research revealed that the Twin Cities had a number of LGBT resources, including the group Rainbow Families. The McGee-Backes bought a house in an upscale Anoka-Hennepin neighborhood, joined a local church and, assured that the school district had a zero-tolerance policy regarding harassment, sent Damien off to fifth grade at Champlin Elementary School.

The bullying started right away and quickly escalated from taunts like “Gaymian” and “gayboy” to violence. Now a ninth-grader, Damien has been shoved, hit, choked, stabbed in the neck with a pencil, and told to perform various acts on himself and his dads. He and his dads have complained repeatedly and at every level, but the solutions teachers and administrators have suggested have punished Damien, while only emboldening his tormentors. Over the last three years he has suffered chronic headaches and insomnia.

Nestled in the elbow of land where the meandering Rum River feeds into the wider, sleepier Mississippi, Anoka sits at a crossroads. Drive one way on Main Street and — and make no mistake, drive you must—you’re downtown. If you look past the storefront payday lenders and bars advertising pull-tabs, you can glimpse the town Congress designated as Halloween Capital of the World and Garrison Keillor re-imagined as Lake Wobegon.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
REUTERS/Charlie Neibergall
Rep. Michele Bachmann

In the other direction, Main Street funnels an endless stream of F150s and Chevy Aveos into a concrete canyon of drive-thrus and big-box chains, spitting them out into a vast estuary of cul-de-sacs. The surrounding bedroom communities span the socioeconomic spectrum from mobile homes to McMansions. The school district is the largest in the state, with some 40,000 students.

Much of the area falls within the district of Rep. Michele Bachmann, who graduated from Anoka High School in 1974. She and her husband, who runs a clinic that purports to cure homosexuality, have strong ties to the groups that regularly pack school board meetings. Student suicides, those groups maintain, are not the result of anti-gay bullying, but of “homosexual indoctrination.” If schools offer any information about sexual orientation, they would like it to be about Bachmann-style reparative therapy.

Over the last two decades the district has been the site of debates over teaching creationism, AIDS prevention, and white supremacy. But the roots of the current controversy can be traced to 2008, when the mother of a high school student in the district complained to the state Department of Human Rights that two teachers had harassed her son, who they perceived as gay.

After the state’s investigation showed that the teachers had in fact subjected the student to “conduct severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive,” Anoka-Hennepin offered a $25,000 settlement. The board also voted to replace a 1995 policy that homosexuality would not be acknowledged as a “normal, valid lifestyle” with a rule mandating “curricular neutrality.” The new policy said that if sexual orientation came up in school, teachers were to remain neutral.

If that sounds simple, for the most part in classrooms and hallways it sowed confusion. Some teachers who had worn their staff IDs on rainbow lanyards to suggest they were safe for LGBT kids to approach took them off. Others didn’t know whether they could answer questions like, “Is being gay something you’re born with or decide?” Or, more perilous, “Are you gay?” Many teachers interpreted the rule as requiring them to turn away when an LGBT student was bullied.

For Damien, the upshot is pretty simple. “They’re letting the bullies get away with it,” he says. “It was difficult talking to the teachers because they would say the same thing over and over: ‘We don’t accept bullies.’ But then they didn’t do anything when I said I was being bullied.”

An accomplished gymnast, Damien is small for his age. Right away in fifth grade a boy in his class identified in court documents only as D.M. decided the combination of two dads and a “girl’s sport” made Damien gay. Despite the McGee-Backes family’s repeated complaints about frequent taunting, school officials did not put an end to it.

The next year, both boys went off to Jackson Middle School where D.M. acquired a clique, which tormented Damien several times a day. Meanwhile, D.M. moved on to physical violence. Administrators put the burden for dealing with the situation on Damien, who they told to leave classes a few minutes early so he wouldn’t be in the hall when other kids were passing. They also asked him to look up at security cameras in public areas when someone was taunting him and scratch his head as a signal.

In other districts, employees are taught effective interventions and are required to participate in creating welcoming school climates. But Jason Backes says Anoka-Hennepin’s teachers have confessed to him that they have no idea how to address Damien’s situation. They’ve gotten no training, no resources, and no help figuring out how to help without running afoul of the neutrality policy.

Once, early on in eighth grade, someone called Damien, who is African American, a nigger. He told the school counselor who immediately disciplined the offender. It never happened again, which Damien says is proof the adults are capable of effectively addressing bullies when they want to or feel they can.

Damien was an honor roll student, but by the middle of seventh grade his grades started slipping. At times his frustration would boil over and he would regress to a toddler-like state, throwing tantrums in which he punched himself or a wall. His parents found him a counselor, but the year ended badly.

Despite the fact that he begged, his dads couldn’t homeschool him, nor could they move. The family bought its house before the recession, when real estate prices were highest. They can’t afford to sell it now. Nor, says Backes, should they have to.

Death in a bathtub
Braxton Bolden is 14 and in the ninth grade at Anoka High School. Before that, he was a student at the former Fred Moore Middle School, now Anoka Middle School for the Arts. With the help of his mother, more than two years ago he went to his teachers and asked if the school could start a kind of club called a gay-straight alliance, or GSA. Braxton is straight, which makes him an ally in GSA parlance.

The school has gay teachers and straight teachers concerned about gay kids, but if Braxton hadn’t stepped forward there might not be a GSA. For nearly 30 years, U.S. law has required schools to give equal treatment to all student-initiated, student-led groups that meet for activities outside school curriculum. Although the clubs meet in the schools after the end of the academic day, their members usually count on being able to get the word out by posting fliers in halls, meeting notices in news bulletins, and so forth.

The religious right groups hounding the district are right about one thing: Open talk about homosexuality in schools changes everything. And arguably, the GSA is where the toothpaste gets definitively squeezed out of the tube, never to go back in.

At her school’s first GSA meeting, Desiree Shelton and her friends got a private visit with the librarian, who had pulled a selection of LGBT books to show them and took them on a tour of the different shelves where novels, health resources, and so forth could be found. Shelton didn’t go in and read the books for another year or so, but knowing they were there in case she needed them helped her.

As a child, Shelton was shy. The GSA helped her adopt an assertive posture she credits with keeping her out of the bullies’ crosshairs. “I think for the first time I was comfortable in my own skin,” she says. “I was pretty outspoken. People knew if they said anything I would fight back.”

The GSA at Shelton’s former school, Champlin Park, is one of the district’s oldest. Years ago its first faculty adviser got some flak for holding an ice cream social from grownups who viewed it, quite literally, as an attempt to use sweets to entice kids to be gay. But as long as the GSAs were contained to the high school level it was minimal. It’s when kids started asking for them in middle school that serious resistance was raised.

Braxton Bolden had asked Anoka Middle School theater teacher Jefferson Fietek to be the group’s faculty advisor. Fietek had wanted a GSA for awhile and agreed readily. Word got out and quickly a bunch of kids were champing to get started.

One of them was a 13-year-old seventh grader named Samantha Johnson who had moved to the area from North Dakota the year before. She did not identify as a lesbian, but got teased mercilessly because she was chubby and tomboyish. Sam and Braxton asked Fietek frequently about scheduling the club’s first meeting.

Samantha Johnson
Samantha Johnson

Despite the existence of the Equal Access Act, the 1984 law that prohibits administrators from outlawing controversial clubs, Fietek had no answer for them. He had planned to hold the first meeting in September 2009, but was turned down by the principal, who wanted the word gay taken out of the title and a rule that sixth-graders could not join. When Fietek pushed back, he was asked to send home permission slips.

Fietek knew some kids join GSAs because home is not a safe place to air questions about their sexual orientations, so he did a little research. The only other clubs at the school that required parental permission were those that cost money or involved risky sports. Nonetheless, he rescheduled the GSA’s first meeting for October, only to face another round of the same questions — and more pestering from Sam and Braxton.

“So then, OK, it was November,” says Fietek. “So I said to the principal, ‘We have followed all of the guidelines to get established, so we’re going to meet. If you have to discipline me, then do it, but we’re going to meet.”

A week before the meeting, Samantha Johnson laid down in the bathtub and put a hunting rifle in her mouth. Her mother, who had been out renting a video, pulled into the driveway as Johnson was pulling the trigger.

“And so our first meeting, which should have been a celebration, was spent talking about how to process our feelings about the loss of one of our GSA friends,” says Fietek. And about secrets—the ones you should keep, like who is and isn’t a GSA member and whether that means they are gay, and the ones you shouldn’t, like when a friend is cutting herself or has threatened suicide.

Now a freshman at a school in another district, Mike Thurston was at that meeting, missing Sam. “I think it would definitely have helped her to go,” he says. “She would have had 30 new friends who all support her.”

Braxton wasn’t friends with Sam, but he was friends with friends of hers, and when he got the news of her death in his first-period class the next day, he was hurt and sad — and angry. “People said they were glad and called her names and all that,” he recalls. He might not be gay, Braxton adds, but in a climate like that the only place he and lots of other kids feel truly safe and accepted is the GSA.

Buried three students
Sam Johnson is one of three students Fietek has buried. For him, the deaths simply cemented a conviction he’s long held: Neutrality policy notwithstanding, it’s his job to protect students. “When I became a teacher seven years ago, one of the things I took very much to heart is that my first job is to keep kids safe,” he says. “We are mandated reporters.”

The last school year was the worst for Fietek. In the fall of 2010, in the wake of the highly publicized suicide of a student named Justin Aaberg, Superintendent Carlson told staff, board members, and the news media that an outside investigation failed to turn up any evidence that any of the deaths involved bullying. Indeed, he insisted, no one could find a teacher or staffer who had received any complaints.

“The kids felt disbelieved, dismissed as being liars,” says Fietek. As a result, many shut down, stopped talking to even trusted adults like him, and began turning to one another for advice. Right after college, Fietek volunteered with a suicide hotline, so he had some formal training what to say and not to say to people in crisis. His students, most of them just barely teens, were making it up as they went along, sometimes to tragic result.

In addition to seven of his students who had to be hospitalized for suicide attempts in the first five months of 2011, Fietek’s phone rang nearly continually with reports of students who were hurting themselves or engaging in unsafe activities. He spent a lot of time talking to GSA members and any other kid who would listen about the kind of secrets adults need to hear.

“By every one of my phones and every computer in my house I had posted crisis hotline numbers,” he says. “I was getting calls from kids and parents, Facebook messages and texts saying, ‘I’m going to kill myself.'”

Every other day he got a new report of a kid on the brink. “It just exploded,” he says. “One girl tried to kill herself because she was so overwhelmed with the number of friends who tried to kill themselves. I had to call her parents and say she has taken on the burden of her friends’ burdens.”

The political forces pounding the district, meanwhile, wanted the GSAs—and particularly Fietek’s, which they singled out online—gone. Even before entering politics, Bachmann was the education adviser to an affiliate of one of the groups, the Minnesota Family Council. Its local affiliate, the Parents Action League, is the group that has asked Anoka-Hennepin to distribute reparative therapy materials in schools.

The head of the MFC, Tom Prichard, told local media that it was “homosexual indoctrination” and not bullying that sparked the suicides. MFC researcher Barb Anderson, who is also head of the Parents Action League, made numerous talk radio appearances and wrote letters to newspapers blaming parents and gay rights advocates for the deaths.

“Why aren’t we outraged that the GSAs affirm sexual disorders?” she wrote to a neighborhood paper in June. “Open your eyes, people. Parents, do you really want your children attending a GSA where homosexual behavior is affirmed and celebrated and where children are trained to be advocates for this unhealthy behavior as well as activists for gay rights?”

After Johnson’s suicide, many GSA members participated in the Day of Silence, an event organized by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network during which kids spend the day in silence to symbolize the effect of anti-gay bullying. In response, the Parents Action League reportedly organized an event called the Day of Truth, created by the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International. Held the day before the Day of Silence, students are to mark it by talking to classmates about homosexuality from a Christian perspective.

In 2010, 15-year-old Justin Aaberg, who was openly gay, came home from Anoka High School and told his mother that another kid had said Justin would go to hell. His mother, Tammy Aaberg, has said that the Parents Action League worked with local churches to hand out Day of Truth t-shirts. In July of that same year, Aaberg hanged himself in his room.

At the start of the 2010-2011 school year, Tammy Aaberg made an impassioned speech to the school board, garnering the first mainstream media attention to the district’s problems. It was in reply to that that Superintendent Carlson said that an investigation had turned up no reports of bullying. He said as much in a robo-call to staff, and district public relations staffers wrote letters repeating the assertion to reporters.

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.

Desiree Shelton attended some of the board meetings and listened to the arguments. But she also attended school every day and knew how often—and how intensively–her classmates were being tormented. An androgynous-looking female friend of hers got shoved into lockers–and had big bruises to prove it. A boy who dressed in “flamboyant” clothes was made to run the gantlet, essentially, by kids who would flatten themselves against the walls as he went by in the halls, throwing out taunts like, “Don’t touch me or I’ll get a disease!” A bullied friend dropped out, depressed and suicidal. Shelton herself got flamed anonymously online.

More suicide attempts
Civil rights advocates here and around the country were watching, too, and several investigations were quietly underway. Two federal agencies were looking into whether the school district was violating U.S. education and civil rights laws. And the Southern Poverty Law Center, a public interest law firm that has played an instrumental role in civil rights struggles involving race, was talking to students, parents, and staff. It took Shelton about an hour to get the help she needed to file suit.

The resulting mediation took about an hour, too. Afterward Carlson and Principal George took Shelton and Lindstrom out to lunch and had a pleasant chat. Carlson told the young women how horrified he had been when a couple he knew ostracized their lesbian daughter. The men clearly care about young people, Shelton says. But they seem to have no idea that asking kids to hide who they are does not protect them. Rather, they are punishing the LGBT kids while enabling the bullies.

After Snow Days, the school year proceeded much like the one before it. Lots of kids attempted suicide and in May, one succeeded. Near the end of the year Sam Wolfe, the Southern Poverty Law Center attorney on the case, sent Carlson a three-page letter charging that the district’s attempts to deal with the crisis were “superficial” and that kids remained at risk.

“It has become increasingly apparent in the course of the investigation that the District’s so-called ‘sexual orientation curriculum policy,’ or ‘gag policy,’ contributes significantly to the hostile environment for LGBT students within the District,” it states. “The gag policy serves no legitimate education-related purpose. Rather, as made abundantly clear in the District’s own guidance about the policy the gag policy singles out a vulnerable and disfavored minority — LGBT students — and prevents teachers and other district employees from supporting, or even protecting, those students within the classroom.”

If the district refused to change its policy, the organizations warned, they would have no choice but to sue: “The policy imposes a stigma on LGBT students as pariahs, not fit to be mentioned within the school community, a message that comes across loud and clear both to LGBT students and their peers, and which has grave repercussions for the psychological and emotional development of LGBT students.”

Settlement talks in June resulted only in a statement from the district saying that it deems the neutrality policy appropriate, and that if civil rights groups really want to help they will agree to provide training to district staff — an offer OutFront Minnesota, a local gay rights organization, had made at the start of the wave of suicides but that was rebuffed.

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Nor do civil libertarians have strong state or federal law to fall back on. So far, federal anti-bullying legislation sponsored by Sen. Al Franken has yet to gain traction.

And yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report criticizing Minnesota’s 37-word anti-bullying statute as weak and ill-defined. Gov. Mark Dayton last month appointed a task force, which includes Justin Aaberg’s mother, to consider the issue.

In July, the groups filed a new suit on behalf of Damien McGee-Backes and four other students. No trial date has been scheduled yet.

In August, the district administration required all staff to undergo anti-bullying training. In addition to requiring staff to monitor hallways and other common spaces, administrators told teachers that Anoka-Hennepin’s anti-bullying rule always trumps its neutrality policy. It’s a step in the right direction, some GSA advisers and students acknowledge, but it was accompanied by suggestions the district’s uppermost concern was public perception. For instance, a committee appointed to address LGBT climate issues includes members of the district’s public relations and legal offices, but no teachers or students.

Plus, some complain, there’s a creeping perception that names of dissenters are being noted. After the staff anti-bullying training, teachers and others were asked to take a six-question quiz about it. One of the true-false questions: “One of the goals of the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy is to ensure all of our students feel safe and respected in our classrooms and/or while participating in school activities.” Anyone who answered “false” failed to get 100 percent.

The second week of the current school year, students were surveyed about their schools’ climates. Jefferson Fietek was heartbroken when he saw that kids had to write their names on the survey forms. His students asked him whether they should answer honestly; some feared they would be called into the office and asked about their answers. He urged them to tell the truth and to assume that their feelings were being taken seriously. When he looked at their answers later, he saw that several who had complained about bullying to him in person wrote that things were just fine.

Six months after graduating, Shelton is still trying to nail down what’s next. She has a new girlfriend and is enrolling in the Minneapolis Technical and Community College to take general courses and hopefully study painting. She needs to get an apartment that’s closer to her new school, but that takes money and the recession has made it hard for anyone without job experience to get started.

Shelton has tried to stay involved, joining an adult effort called the Gay Equity Team, but it’s hard. She’s disappointed that things reverted to the status quo. But she’s glad she inspired kids in the district and from as far away as France, and glad that younger classmates saw her standing up for herself, even if it meant filing a federal lawsuit. Maybe having seen two young women who were proud enough of themselves to hold hands in front of the whole school will make a difference for this year’s royal court.

“Really,” she says, “I just wanted kids to know they are not alone.”