New York A spate of teen suicides linked to anti-gay harassment is prompting school officials nationwide to rethink their efforts against bullying — and in the process, risk entanglement in a bitter ideological debate.
The conflict: Gay-rights supporters insist that any effective anti-bullying program must include specific components addressing harassment of gay youth. But religious conservatives condemn that approach as an unnecessary and manipulative tactic to sway young people’s views of homosexuality.
It’s a highly emotional topic. Witness the hate mail — from the left and right — directed at Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District while it reviews its anti-bullying strategies in the aftermath of a gay student’s suicide.
The invective is “some of the worst I’ve ever seen,” Superintendent Dennis Carlson said. “We may invite the Department of Justice to come in and help us mediate this discussion between people who seem to want to go at each other.”
Carlson’s district in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis is politically diverse, and there are strong, divided views on how to combat bullying.
“We believe the bullying policy should put the emphasis on the wrong actions of the bullies and not the characteristics of the victims,” said Chuck Darrell of the conservative Minnesota Family Council.
That’s a wrongheaded, potentially dangerous approach, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network — which tries to improve the school climate for gay students nationwide.
“Policies have to name the problem in order to have an impact,” said GLSEN’s executive director, Eliza Byard. “Only the ones that name it see an improvement.”
According to a 2009 GLSEN survey of 7,261 students, only 18 percent said their schools had a comprehensive program addressing anti-gay bullying, while gay students in schools that had such programs were less likely to be victimized and more likely to report problems to staff.
Across the political spectrum, every group weighing in on the issue had deplored the recent deaths — the latest in a long series of suicides over many years by harassed gay teens, but dramatic nonetheless because of the high toll in a short span.
The most recent and highest-profile case involved Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, 18, who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington bridge after his roommate secretly recorded him with another male student, then broadcast the video online.
But at least four younger teens have killed themselves since July after being targeted by anti-gay bullying, including Justin Aaberg, 15, of Andover, Minn., who hanged himself in his room in July. His friends told his mother he’d been a frequent target of bullies mocking his sexual orientation.
Five other students in his Anoka-Hennepin school district have killed themselves in the past year, and gay-rights advocates say bullying may have played a role in two of these cases as well.
Carlson, the district superintendent, lost a teenage daughter of his own in a car crash, and says he shares the anguish of the parents bereaved by suicide. He acknowledges that a controversial district policy calling for “neutrality” in classroom discussions of sexual orientation may have created an impression among some teachers, students and outsiders that school staff wouldn’t intervene aggressively to combat anti-gay bullying.
‘A human issue’
The district — Minnesota’s largest — serves nearly 40,000 students in 13 towns. The school board adopted the neutrality policy in 2009 as a balancing act, trying not to offend either liberal or conservative families.
Rebecca Dearing, 17, a junior who belongs to the gay-straight alliance at the district’s Champlin Park High School, said the neutrality policy caused teachers to shy away from halting anti-gay harassment — sometimes leaving her gay friends feeling vulnerable to the point where they don’t come to school.
“This shouldn’t be a political issue any more, when it’s affecting the lives of our students,” she said. “It’s a human issue that needs to be dealt with. They can be doing more and they’re not.”
In August, amid the furor over the suicides, the district clarified its anti-bullying program — saying that it was not governed by the neutrality provision and had always been intended to encourage vigilant, proactive adult intervention to curb anti-gay harassment. Staffers were told failure to intervene would be punished.
Justin Aaberg’s mother, Tammy Aaberg, is convinced the broader neutrality policy has been damaging to gay students and wants it changed. She said she heard belatedly from Justin’s friends about instances in past years where he was harassed that she was never notified about even through staff members were aware.
Now she sees signs that the district wants to be more diligent, but isn’t fully reassured.
“Most of the teachers and principals, and maybe even now the superintendent, they mean well — they want to intervene,” she said. “But the teachers still don’t know what they can and can’t do.”
Nadia Boufous Phelps, the school psychologist at Anoka’s Blaine High School, is co-advisor for its gay-straight alliance — to which 27 of the 3,000 students belong. She welcomes the attempt to clarify the stance toward anti-gay bullying.
“In the past, the staff often would not intervene,” she said. “Now the district has come out loud and clear, if you hear ‘That’s so gay,’ if you witness anything, you must do something.”
Still, she said, “We still have a long way to go.”