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The Teen Suicide Epidemic in Michele Bachmann's District

Two years. Nine suicides. Why critics blame the congresswoman's anti-gay allies for contributing to a mental health crisis.

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)

The first was TJ. Then came Samantha, Aaron, Nick, and Kevin. Over the past two years, a total of nine teenagers have committed suicide in a Minnesota school district represented by Rep. Michele Bachmann—the latest in May—and many more students have attempted to take their lives. State public health officials have labeled the area a "suicide contagion area" because of the unusually high death rate.

Some of the victims were gay, or perceived to be by their classmates, and many were reportedly bullied. And the anti-gay activists who are some of the congresswoman's closest allies stand accused of blocking an effective response to the crisis and fostering a climate of intolerance that allowed bullying to flourish. Bachmann, meanwhile, has been uncharacteristically silent on the tragic deaths that have roiled her district—including the high school that she attended.

Bachmann, who began her political career as an education activist, has described gay rights as an "earthquake issue," and she and her allies have made public schools the front lines of their fight against the "homosexual agenda." They have opposed efforts in the state to promote tolerance for gays and lesbians in the classroom, seeing such initiatives as a way of allowing gays to recruit impressionable youths into an unhealthy and un-Christian lifestyle.

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But in 2008, when Michele Johnson and her daughter, Samantha, moved from rural North Dakota into the 38,000-student Anoka-Hennepin school district, the largest in Minnesota, they had no idea they were landing on ground zero of that culture war. Coming from a rural small town, Samantha barely knew what the word gay meant when she arrived at Fred Moore Middle School (now Anoka Middle School for the Arts) as a seventh-grader. But by the fall of 2009, the 13-year-old was at the epicenter of the public school fight over gay rights.

She was among a group of students who pushed the district to allow them to start a gay-straight alliance club (GSA). Such groups have been vehemently opposed by religious conservatives, who have dubbed them gay "sex clubs." The club was designed to give both LGBT and straight kids a supportive environment from which to combat harassment and a place to learn coping skills. The students had approached a theater teacher, Jefferson Fietek, who agreed to be the group's staff adviser. The club was supposed to convene for the first time in September 2009, but Fietek says that the school district balked, claiming to need more time to vet the club with "legal."

Samantha had taken off the new clothes her mother had bought her and changed into some old stuff. She had lain down in the bathtub and put a hunting rifle in her mouth.

The first meeting was postponed until October, when the district stalled again. Fietek finally decided to hold a meeting in November anyway, without the district's approval. But Samantha wasn't there for it.

Even as she was helping to start the GSA, her world was falling apart. Always a good student, Samantha was failing all her classes. She dropped out of volleyball. Michele was frantically trying to help her only child. She begged a school counselor to keep an eye on her. She took Samantha to a therapist. But Samantha was depressed for reasons Michele didn't fully understand.

In November, Samantha started to cheer up, and Michele started to think she had turned a corner. Over Veterans Day weekend, she bought Samantha some new clothes, which, to her surprise, were a hit. On Veterans Day, they made plans to play football in the backyard and to grill outside. Michele and her boyfriend, John, went to the store to rent a movie and pick up some food. When they pulled into the driveway a half-hour later, John heard the gun shot.

Inside, Samantha had taken off the new clothes her mother had bought her and changed into some old stuff. She had lain down in the bathtub and put a hunting rifle in her mouth. A single bullet went through the back of her head. "There was no saving her," Michele says through tears.

It was only much later her mother began to piece together what had been going on in Samantha's life in the days before she died. Samantha had always been partial to wearing sweats and she wore her hair short. She played softball and volleyball, and she was chubby. Kids had been harassing her on the assumption that she was a lesbian. But Michele says her daughter wasn't gay. Samantha did seek refuge with kids who were, in part, her mother suspects, because they, too, were singled out for bullying at school.

Samantha's friends told Michele that some of the girls from the volleyball team had basically been stalking her, waiting until Samantha was out of view of the security cameras, and teasing her about her clothes, her weight, her hair. Samantha tried to cope on her own. One day she wore girly clothes. That just resulted in more abuse. Samantha's friends told Michele that such bullying had been witnessed at least once by school staff member, who did nothing to intervene.

"If I had known, I would have pulled her out of that school so quick," Michele says. But no one told her. Even when Samantha stopped going to volleyball practice, the coach never contacted her mother.

Fietek, too, has been devastated by Samantha's death. "She would have been at the first meeting [of the GSA] if we had been allowed to meet when we were supposed to meet," says Fietek. "There's always the 'what if' thing. I wish we would have been given the opportunity to reach out to her. There are many incidents where kids have come to the group and said that what they learned there saved my life."

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