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Tammy Aaberg

Views & Voices

When will real change happen in Anoka-Hennepin schools?

Friday, November 2, 2012
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On July 9, 2010, my son Justin still wasn’t awake at 2:00 p.m. when my then 7-year-old son Anthony and I returned from getting our new baby chinchilla. This wasn’t normal, and so, after knocking on his door and frantically calling his name and threatening to break the door down, my oldest son, Andrew — who was 18 at the time — heard me and yelled that he would go get a screwdriver.

Anthony yelled, “I’ll go get a knife,” as the kitchen was just around the corner.

After getting the door open, I didn’t see Justin at first, but as I walked in, I saw my son dead by his own hand.

Justin Aaberg
Family photo.

I screamed his name and ran up to him, as I wanted to hug him, but quickly realized that Justin wasn’t there anymore. He had obviously been dead for several hours.

I stopped and touched 2 fingers to his chest and felt how cold and rubbery he was — I ran screaming out of the bedroom to call 911. Anthony stayed right with me, and a couple of days later I would learn than Andrew had stayed by his brother’s side until the police came, as he didn’t want to leave Justin alone.

July 9, 2010 was the worst day of our lives.

Our lives today, over two years later, are still not what they used to be.

We have days that are better than others, and we have now developed what people might call “a new normal”– but we still miss Justin and his beautiful bright light that he brought to our lives every day with his beautiful, almost never-ending smile and his amazing cello music that he loved to play so often.

Unfortunately, today — over 2 years after that awful summer day when I first learned about the bullying and harassment that Justin faced in school on a continuous basis, and confronting the Anoka-Hennepin school board for my first time at a public meeting about what my son and other gay students like him have endured in the schools — my family is still not able to heal the way we should have been able to.

The Anoka-Hennepin school board has continued to deny that their policies were at all at fault.

They also continue to allow hate groups to have a major voice in how they handle the safety of their LGBTQ students, and other students that don’t accept the “conservative Christian” religious beliefs.

You would think that after having a 15-month period of time during which there were nine suicides in the school district, with at least 4 of them having some type of LGBTQ connection to being bullied (in which the SPLC, DOJ, DOE and NCLR had a lawsuit against them), they would at least want to look like they care for these kids, and have the LGBTQ students believe that they truly don’t have some type of disorder.

But, unfortunately, within a month after settling the lawsuit, school board chairman Tom Heidemann released the following letter to the Anoka Watchdog newspaper, in which he states, “The Board maintained the intent of the sexual orientation curriculum policy while making it defensible in future legal challenges.”

So, he’s pretty much saying that there is no intent for the new Respectful Learning Environment Policy, which the district adopted as part of that settlement, to have any change in the way things are run for LGBTQ students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

For several months following the settlement, I was hoping that the district was working hard to implement some of the policies mentioned in the consent decree.

And when the application on the school district website came online to apply for the Anti-bullying Task Force earlier this summer, I made sure that I got my application in on time.

I felt that I had a good chance of getting on the task force as the applications were going to the new Title IX person hired on as part of the Consent Decree. Sadly I found out just days before my letter came denying my application for the position, that Heidemann was making the sole decision on who would be on the task force.

I stated my disappointment to the Title IX person about this as I would never have wasted my time applying had I known he was making the decision alone. I knew he never would have chosen me, as he, along with the rest of the school board, never responded to my requests to meet with them in person before the lawsuit was settled.

Additionally, none of the school board members ever told me that they were sorry for the loss of my son, Justin.

A couple days after finding out that Heidemann was choosing the Anti-bullying Task Force members on his own, I received a letter from him stating who was going to be on the task force, and of course I wasn’t listed nor were the other two people whom I knew had applied. Bryan Lindquist from the anti-gay hate group, the Parent Action League (PAL) was selected instead.

This is the man whom earlier this year had given the school board a list of ten demands in regards to dealing with the issues regarding LGBTQ people.

In fact, Heidemann took the time to write a four-page letter responding to Lindquist and PAL’s demands. Yet a month earlier, my then 9-year-old son Anthony, had written to the school board a letter which he begged me to send and which never received a reply. He still remembers this almost a year later.

Anthony’s letter. (Click image to enlarge.)

Sadly, with all of the above going on, the Southern Poverty Law Center says there is nothing they can do to ensure things truly are being handled fairly in the Anoka-Hennepin School District as they [the school district] follow through on making policy changes.

I’m hearing that policies are being made, and I would love to see them enforced.

But when the head of the school board acts unilaterally, choosing the members of the Anti-bullying Task Force and one of them is from a hate group, this worries me as to who else is on the task force.

So far, of the six people who I’ve found out have been denied, five of them spoke out against the former “neutrality policy.”

If the head of the school board is negatively abusing his power on this issue, who can say what else he’s manipulating, especially after seeing his response in the Anoka Watchdog.

Another hurtful thing in our community and throughout the entire state of Minnesota is the upcoming vote on the marriage amendment, which would alter the state’s constitution to say that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

Throughout Minnesota, people have “Vote Yes” signs who agree with “traditional” marriage, while others have “Vote No” signs for those who agree with the freedom to marry for gays and lesbians.

Up here in Anoka-Hennepin land, there aren’t many “Vote No” signs and only a few more “Vote Yes” signs.

My now 10-year-old son Anthony comes home on the school bus many days and is super mad when he sees “Vote Yes” signs; even one of them upsets him. However, when we drive the 20 miles to Minneapolis where my parents live, almost every single house has a “Vote No” sign in its yard.

When Anthony sees those “Vote No” signs all at once, he’s a kid in a candy store with how much enthusiasm he has for realizing how many caring people there really are in this world who want freedom for all.

Back: Shawn and Andrew. Front: Anthony and Tammy, holding a photo of Justin.
NoH8 Campaign photo by Adam Bouska.

It’s so awful to see how much hurt this issue can cause a person, whether they are straight or gay.

I see friendships falling apart, families fighting. I even had a teacher friend of mine tell me last week that during a break at play rehearsal, a 7th grade boy said to him, “Mr. Fietek, I can’t wait until this election is over.” When asked why, he said; “I don’t know any gay people, but every time I see one of those ‘Vote Yes’ signs, I get upset because that just seems really hurtful.”

This is a 7th grader — and he gets it.

The people who want “Vote Yes” to win continue to lie and mislead people and tear families apart with their ads, while we have innocent, loving people getting hurt — but according to the “conservative Christians,” this is all in the name of their God.

I just want to tell all youth out there that the Jesus I know and love, loves everyone, which includes them.

And you know what? He loves you just the way you are.

We can all continue to speak out for equal rights and we WILL continue to see things getting better and better for all, but we ALL need to make more effort for change to happen. I am sure we can do it!

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