Samantha's death was among the first in a wave of suicides and attempted suicides that plagued this district for the next two years. At least four of the suicides involved kids known or at least perceived by their peers to be LGBT. Since January, seven of Fietek's students at Anoka Middle School have been hospitalized for attempting or threatening suicide.
There's no sure way of knowing why any of the kids took their own lives, but gay rights activists quickly honed in on one factor they saw as contributing to an unhealthy climate for at-risk kids. Anoka-Hennepin has a policy on the books known colloquially as "no homo promo," which dates in back to the mid-1990s. Back then, after several emotional school board meetings, the district essentially wiped gay people out of the school health curriculum. There could be no discussion of homosexuality, even with regard to HIV and AIDS, and the school board adopted a formal policy that stated school employees could not teach that homosexuality was a "normal, valid lifestyle."
Later the policy was changed to require school staff to remain neutral on issues of homosexuality if they should come up in class, a change that critics said fostered confusion among teachers and contributed to their inability to address bullying and harassment, or to even ask reasonable questions about some of the issues the kids were struggling with, like sexual orientation. Both policies were put into place at the behest of conservative religious activists who have been among Bachmann's biggest supporters in the district. They include the Minnesota Family Council (MFC), and its local affiliate, the Parents Action League, which has lobbied to put discredited "reparative therapy" materials in schools. Samantha Johnson
If you or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide, please call the Trevor Lifeline for LGBT youth at (866) 4-U-Trevor or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALKThat's the sort of counseling reportedly practiced by Bachmann & Associates, the mental health clinics run by Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus. The clinics reportedly counsel people on how to "pray away the gay" to become straight. Before entering politics, Bachmann served as the education advisor to the MFC-affiliated Minnesota Family Institute, a relationship she has continued. This spring, she headlined a fundraising dinner for MFC, along with Newt Gingrich.
The MFC has waged a seven-year battle to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that will be on the state ballot in 2012. In the Minnesota Legislature, Bachmann was at the forefront of this issue. In 2004, she appeared on the steps at the state capital at a rally supporting a ban on gay marriage and linked the issue to the public schools, telling the crowd, "In our public schools, whether they want to or not, they'll be forced to start teaching that same-sex marriage is equal, that it is normal and that children should try it."
Teachers and counselors in the district, as well as civil rights activists, say that Bachmann's closest allies like the MFC have helped create a vitriolic climate in the wake of the teen suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin area that may have hampered the community's ability to effectively address what was, at root, a serious mental health crisis. Following the deaths and the publicity about bullying and anti-gay sentiments, the school district became inflamed with nasty infighting over whether promoting anti-bullying efforts was simply a cover for advancing the homosexual agenda in schools.
"It was very distracting," says Daniel J. Reidenberg, the executive director of the Minnesota-based Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) who has been involved with the school district in addressing the suicide contagion. He notes that the anti-gay rhetoric after the suicides was potentially harmful to at-risk kids.
Last year, as the teen suicides prompted local discussion about how to prevent more deaths, and gay rights groups honed in on the school district's "neutrality" policy, religious conservatives formed a new group to preserve the policy and fight what they viewed as the undue influence of homosexuals in the schools. The Parents Action League, headed by Minnesota Family Council researcher Barb Anderson, wrote on its website that one of the group's major concerns was the gay-straight alliance at Anoka Middle School. The Parents Action League has been fighting the GSA ever since, and Anderson has taken to the airwaves and local op-ed pages to blame parents and gay activists for the rash of suicides.
In June, she wrote to a local paper:
Why aren't we outraged that the GSAs affirm sexual disorders? (i.e. homosexual attractions and behavior which for men is built around the practice of anal sex—the leading cause of HIV)…GSAs imply that homosexual behavior is acceptable and even cool. Homosexual-friendly books tell students that bisexuality, sexual fluidity and experimentation are OK.
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?
Tom Prichard, the head of the MFC, told the Minnesota Independent in October that his group would continue to fight anti-bullying efforts in the Anoka-Hennepin schools, saying that the suicides were not the product of anti-gay bulling but rather "homosexual indoctrination." Prichard said students like Samantha died because they adopted an "unhealthy lifestyle," and that "homosexual activists" were manipulating the suicides to further advance their agenda in the school district.
Bachmann ally Bradlee Dean, the head of the heavy-metal ministry You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, last year took to the radio to decry efforts to create a more tolerant climate in the public schools. "We were just talking about the homosexual indoctrination," Dean said. "The state-run media is going after the schools for resisting the homosexual indoctrination. The homosexuals are now blaming—they are playing the victims—the homosexuals are now blaming [the schools'] stance as the reason that young homosexuals are committing suicide because of the schools' intolerance to the lifestyle of homosexuality." Another one of Bachmann's longtime allies, Janet Boynes, an "ex-gay" who works with the ministry Exodus International, has also joined the fight. In May, she spoke at an Anoka-Hennepin school board meeting supporting the neutrality policy.