Suicide among adolescents has dramatically increased over the past several decades. It is now among the leading causes of death in this age group worldwide. Risk is higher among gay and lesbian teenagers, which is not surprising once we take into account that school problems, social isolation, family issues and poor self-image all increase the risk of suicidality.
A single suicide in a school is a tragedy. But in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota, there have been seven suicides in the past year of current and recent students. In the past year, three of these suicides have been of students who were gay or lesbian. Statistically, this is an epidemic.
At a school board meeting on August 23, 2010, the mother of the most recent suicide, 15-year-old Justin Aaberg, talked to the board about her son and the harassment he faced. Other students and former students spoke of the anti-gay atmosphere in some of the district schools. One mother said her son came out to her when he was in college, and only then did he tell her of the bullying he was subjected to in high school.
The district has taken steps in recent years to address all forms of bullying; harassment of students for sexual orientation, race, disability, socio-economic class are all considered unacceptable. Some staff have been trained to deal with bullying.
Yet there seems to be a difference with LGTB students. A group has formed in the district called the Parent’s Action Group. They set up a website where they take the position that homosexuality is a disease and can be cured, and they link to the Exodus group, which claims to cure homosexuality through religion. This group has influenced the district in their “neutrality policy” which prohibits teachers from discussing homosexuality in class.
Advocates for LGTB students claim that the policy leads to a negative atmosphere and has caused the school board to reject an offer of special training by an LGTB rights group, and kept them from disciplining two teachers who were accused of teasing a student they perceived to be gay. In that case, the district settled for $25,000, and the state anti-discrimination agency came in. The teachers, claiming innocence, have been suspended.
While advocates commend the district for its anti-bullying efforts, they express frustration that the board does not seem to connect the neutrality policy with the harassment of gay students. The one is an academic policy, while the other is social. They fail to see the relationship, and say they have no plans to reconsider the neutrality policy. Students are better off discussing issues of sexual orientation with family, church, or community groups. One recent graduate who was a friend of Justin Aaberg points out that for many gay students whose families reject them and whose churches condemn them, school is the only community they can turn to for support.
Research shows that family acceptance and peer acceptance can reduce the risks of suicide. This makes it even more important for school to provide a safe and welcoming environment for gay students, and adds poignancy to the cry for school to become the community of acceptance.
For the Anoka-Hennepin story:
The Minnesota Independent
For Suicide Information: