Page 3 of 3

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

Throughout all of this, Bachmann has remained uncharacteristically quiet. Her office did not respond to a request for comment. But she is on the record opposing anti-bullying legislation. In 2006, Bachmann attended a hearing on an anti-bullying bill in the state legislature and voiced her opinion that bullying was simply a fact of life.

She told state lawmakers: "I think for all us our experience in public schools is there have always been bullies, always have been, always will be. I just don't know how we're ever going to get to point of zero tolerance and what does it mean?...What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression? Will it mean that what form of behavior will there be—will we be expecting boys to be girls?"

As civil rights groups have pushed the Minnesota school district to do more to increase tolerance of LGBT students, conservative religious groups fought to keep them away from public schools. After Samantha's suicide and several others, students in Anoka-Hennepin schools participated in the Day of Silence. The event, organized by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, encourages kids to remain silent for the day in recognition of the effect of anti-gay bullying and harassment. In response, religious activists took up the "Day of Truth," an event championed by the "ex-gay ministry" Exodus International that's usually held the day before the Day of Silence. Students who participated were encouraged to engage their classmates in discussions of homosexuality from a Christian perspective.

The anti-gay climate in the schools in Bachmann's district has been so extreme that it has attracted the attention of the Justice Department and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

Fifteen-year-old Justin Aaberg appears to have been one of the targets of this initiative. One day last year Justin came home and told his mom, Tammy, that another student had told him he would to go to hell because he was gay. "That did something to his brain," she says. He hanged himself in his bedroom last summer. Only after his suicide did Tammy learn that the Parents Action League had reportedly worked with area churches to hand out T-shirts promoting the "Day of Truth" to students at his high school (which is also Bachmann's alma mater). The students were also instructed to "preach to the gay kids," Aaberg says. (No one from the Parents Action League responded to a request for comment.)

The anti-gay climate in the schools in Bachmann's district has been so extreme that it has attracted the attention of the Justice Department and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which are both investigating allegations of anti-gay bullying. The Southern Poverty Law Center has also been on the ground investigating discrimination against gay students. On Thursday, it sued the school district over its "neutrality" policy, which the group views as a potential violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution. In a letter to the district superintendent in May, SPLC wrote:

The gag policy bears no rational relationship to any legitimate governmental purpose. On the contrary, the history surrounding the policy's enactment clearly shows that the policy was adopted solely in deference to some community members' disapproval of, and animus toward, a particular class of citizens—LGBT people. The law is clear that mere animus toward an unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental purpose.

The letter describes the plight of LGBT students, several of whom had been harassed physically and verbally for long periods of time. According to the SPLC, the students reported the harassment to school officials, who ignored the complaints. One of the plaintiffs eventually dropped out of school and later attempted suicide. Another student, who'd been reporting anti-LGBT harassment for two years, was advised by the school district to find another school because they couldn't protect him. A third student claims that after he was violently assaulted and called a "faggot" in the hallway, a teacher stood by and watched without intervening. After he reported the incident, the school official blamed him for provoking the attack.

Sam Wolfe, the staff attorney working on the suit, says, "One of our clients got stabbed in the neck with a pencil in the bathroom. The district has serious problems. They've been reluctant to really address the nature of the problem."

Tammy Aaberg has been lobbying public officials to do more to change the tenor of the dialogue and to pass legislation that would make the schools safer. She says Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) have both been supportive; Franken has introduced federal legislation that would require school districts to protect LGBT students. Bachmann, however, has been a ghost on the issue. Aaberg requested a meeting with the congresswoman to discuss Franken's safe schools legislation but says she got no response.

Such legislation will come too late for Justin—for TJ, Aaron, Nick, Kevin, July, Justin, and Cole. It will come too late for Jordan, who took his life in May. Too late for Samantha, as well.

Now, Michele Johnson watches the school bus pass her home every day without her daughter on it. She weeps as she talks about never having grandchildren, or the opportunity to help her daughter get a driver's license. "I wish we had never moved here," she says. "I feel if I hadn't moved to this district my daughter wouldn't have died."

UPDATE: If you or someone you know is in crisis and is considering suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBT youth at 1-866-488-7386. The hotline is free, confidential, and runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Page 3 of 3
Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.