Anoka-Hennepin official now acknowledges bullying as a ‘factor’ in teen suicides

Dennis Carlson

Dennis Carlson

COON RAPIDS, Minn. — Just weeks after denouncing a Rolling Stone article on bullying and teen suicide as a “brutal and distorted attack,” the Superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District in suburban Minneapolis now says “there can be no doubt that in many situations bullying is one of the contributing factors” to suicide.

Dennis Carlson

The statement by Superintendent Dennis Carlson, published on the school district’s website, contrasts sharply with a December 2010 voice message to district employees in which Carlson said, “Based on all of the information we have been able to gather none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment.”

Carlson said the letter was intended to help bring healing to the beleaguered district that is the subject of a federal probe and two lawsuits filed by six students for alleged “disregard of bullying in schools” under the district’s former “neutrality” policy.

In the past three years, at least nine teenagers from within the Anoka-Hennepin district have committed suicide, and many more students have attempted to take their lives. Some of the victims were gay, or perceived to be by their classmates, and many were reportedly bullied.

“Although no one can ever be absolutely certain of the specific event that leads to a student’s suicide, there can be no doubt that in many situations bullying is one of the contributing factors. Gay students are especially vulnerable to anti-gay bullying and so are other students that are unique in some way that leads to verbal attacks by students,” Carlson wrote.

Tammy Aaberg, whose son Justin took his own life in July 2010, said she appreciates the withdrawal of the previous statement but said the new statement still doesn’t go far enough, reported the Star-Tribune.

“The climate of the school has a lot to do with how mental health is in gay students,” said Aaberg, who, since her son’s death, has become a national advocate for LGBT teens and for anti-bullying causes.

Aaberg is among the critics who have charged that officials at Anoka-Hennepin schools hid behind an “out-of-touch” neutrality policy on LGBT issues, which many dubbed a “gag rule.”

The policy, which was replaced last month, required teachers and staff to “remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.” Aaberg has lobbied the school district for more than a year to abandon the policy.

The two lawsuits also allege that the former policy contributed to a hostile environment in which LGBT students and those perceived as LGBT were subjected to anti-LGBT slurs and physical threats on a daily basis by their peers.

The neutrality policy was replaced last month by the “Respectful Learning Environment” policy, which now directs Anoka-Hennepin schools to provide “a safe and respectful learning environment for all students,” and directs staff to “affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”

The Anonka-Hennepin school district, in the heart of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann‘s congressional district, was the subject of a Rolling Stone article published earlier this month, describing the LGBTQ community as pitted against anti-gay evangelical Christians whose policies were implemented by the local school districts.

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