Justin Aaberg
AP
Justin Aaberg at his home in Andover, Minn. Aaberg, 15, hanged himself in his room in July 2010. His friends told his mother he'd been a frequent target of bullies mocking his sexual orientation.
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updated 10/9/2010 6:27:22 PM ET 2010-10-09T22:27:22

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.

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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.

Image: Tyler?Clementi
Sam Fran Scavuzzo  /  AP file
Tyler Clementi, left, hugs a fellow student during his 2010 graduation from Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, N.J. The Rutgers University freshman killed himself by jumping off the George Washington bridge on Sept. 22, 2010 after his roommate allegedly secretly recorded him with another male student, then broadcast the video online.

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.

Story: Lawyer: No basis for bias charge in Rutgers case

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.

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.

Image: Dennis Carlson
Dawn Villella  /  AP
Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Dennis Carlson and the district are facing challenges regarding the suicides of at least five students in the past year, and gay-rights advocates say bullying may have played a role in two of these cases as well.

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."

'You must do something'
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".

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Carlson says his district, seven years ago, was among the first in the state to implement a comprehensive anti-bullying program. Now he's exasperated by the highly charged, politicized debate that has flared since Aaberg's suicide.

"It's a terribly sensitive situation," he said. "Hurtful statements on either side are not helpful ... and the kids are watching."

Phil Duran, staff attorney for the statewide gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, says Carlson and his colleagues are constrained by school board members who do not want to anger conservative voters in the district.

"They're between a rock and a hard place," he said. "I do think they want to do the right thing — I don't think they know what the right thing is."

Nationally, the recent suicides have intensified calls on Congress to pass a pending bill, the Safe Schools Improvement Act. It would require schools receiving federal funds to implement bullying prevention programs that specifically address anti-gay harassment.

Supporters of the act say it has bipartisan support, but the likelihood of Democratic losses in the Nov. 2 election cloud its prospects, and it is vehemently opposed by many conservatives.

"A lot of these anti-bullying programs are crossing the lines far beyond bullying prevention into adult-oriented material and politics," said Candi Cushman, education analyst for Focus on the Family. Mission America president Linda Harvey said the act would "incorporate mandatory pro-gay propaganda."

According to GLSEN, 10 states have anti-bullying laws along the lines of the Safe Schools Act — requiring specific components addressing anti-gay harassment. But gay-rights activists say enforcement and compliance is not uniform.

For example, Dave Reynolds of the Trevor Project, which seeks to combat teen suicides, says many California schools are not in compliance with the state's 10-year-old law. One problem area, he said, is California's Central Valley — the source of many calls to the Trevor Project's suicide hot line.

Jeffree Merteuil-Clark, 17, is a junior who's active in the gay-straight alliance at Frontier High School in Bakersfield, a Central Valley city not far from Tehachapi. That's the town where 13-year-old Seth Walsh, hanged himself outside his home last month after enduring taunts from classmates about being gay. He died after nine days in a coma.

Merteuil-Clark said the teachers who are sympathetic to bullied gay students tend to be cautious, fearing they might antagonize Kern County school administrators who want to "sweep the problem under the rug."

"Growing up gay in Kern County, you have all this opposition to you," he said. "It does have an impact on you. When you're little, you think the rest of the world hates you."

The debate has proved to be a minefield for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, one of the largest in the nation, as it strives to serve schools ranging from progressive to conservative.

"We have to be extremely careful," said Marlene Snyder, the Olweus development director, describing a community-by-community approach which enables schools to tailor the program as they see fit in regard to anti-gay bullying.

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"We've worked in all kinds of schools," Snyder said. "Some have very much taken on the homophobic situation. Other schools won't touch it with a 10-foot pole."

GLSEN sees a mixed picture nationwide — gay-straight alliances continue to spread, numbering more than 4,000 nationwide, yet nine of 10 gay students in its latest survey reported suffering anti-gay harassment,

Asked for an example of an effective program, GLSEN leader Eliza Byard cited New York City's Respect for All Initiative. The district, which serves 1.1 million students, makes specific mention of sexual orientation in its anti-bullying training for teachers and its materials for students.

"There's always more to do," said Elayna Konstan, head of the Office of School and Youth Development. "We're always trying to do this work better."

Of course, even a highly praised anti-bullying program doesn't spare New York City from its own share of anti-gay violence. Police charged members of a street gang with brutally beating a recruit they suspected of being gay and torturing him and two other people last week.

Police said the nine members of a gang that called itself the Latin King Goonies went berserk after hearing a rumor that one of their new recruits, a 17-year-old, was gay.

Investigators say the teen was stripped, beaten and sodomized with a plunger handle until he confessed to having had sex with a 30-year-old man who lives a few blocks away. ___

Associated Press Writer Chris Williams in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Parents say boy, 13, was bullied to suicide

  1. Transcript of: Parents say boy, 13, was bullied to suicide

    NATALIE MORALES, anchor: And now to the story of an eighth-grader and his tragic suicide, which his parents blame on school bullying . Amy and David Truong say their 13-year-old son was harassed in school and as a result shot himself inside their home. We're going to speak with his parents live in an exclusive interview in a moment. But first, NBC 's Jeff Rossen has the very latest. Jeff , good morning.

    JEFF ROSSEN reporting: Hi, Natalie. Just an awful story. He was only 13 years old and his parents say just going to school was painful. Bullies picked on him for everything because he was short, because he had a lisp, because he liked to read. Then one day, they say, the bullies pushed him down a flight of stairs at school , and the very next day he ended his own life.

    Ms. AMY TRUONG (Asher Brown's Mother): I feel destroyed. That was by baby. That was my youngest son .

    ROSSEN: Asher Brown was in eighth grade, a straight A student, mature beyond his years, which his parents say made the torment at school even worse. Asher knew he was different and told his family the bullies at school were happy to remind him with violence and abuse.

    Mr. DAVID TRUONG (Asher Brown's Stepfather): They made fun of his size, him being small. They made fun of his ears. They made fun of his religion when they found out he was Buddhist .

    ROSSEN: At his middle school in a Houston suburb, where the no-bullying sign is clear as day, Asher told his parents he was being tortured. It was going on all year, but his final days were especially bad.

    Ms. TRUONG: The bully that he had had trouble with pushed him down a flight of stairs and had his books kicked down the hall, all while laughing at my son. I believe fully that this was just...

    Mr. TRUONG: Yeah.

    Ms. TRUONG: ...the last straw for him.

    ROSSEN: The next morning, Asher revealed the secret and told his stepdad he was gay.

    Mr. TRUONG: And he had a smile on his face. He had got it off his chest.

    ROSSEN: But after school that afternoon, Asher went into a bedroom closet and shot himself with his stepfather's gun.

    Ms. TRUONG: I think I started screaming then because I just -- I couldn't wrap my head around that. I came home to police tape.

    ROSSEN: Her 13-year-old boy, who she says cried out for help so many times, was gone.

    Ms. TRUONG: My son told teachers. When that didn't work, we called the school . We asked to speak to counselors, assistant principals...

    Mr. TRUONG: Even the coaches.

    Ms. TRUONG: Yeah, the coaches in his PE class, anyone who would listen to us.

    Unidentified Woman: We have to accept each other.

    ROSSEN: Just this month, a similar case in Indiana . Fifteen-year-old Billy Lucas committed suicide after bullies allegedly taunted him about his sexual orientation. And, of course, what's become the national example, the suicide of Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts , whose alleged bullies, dubbed the " mean girls ," have been criminally charged with felonies.

    Mr. EDWARD F. DRAGAN (School Safety and Legal Expert): Most states now require that schools have anti-bullying policies in place. But, you know, policies are only as good as the implementation of those policies.

    ROSSEN: For Asher Brown 's family, it's still so raw. His shoes and book bag are still on the floor where he left them, the crumbs from his last meal still on his place mat, and Asher 's midterm report card sits on the table. One teacher wrote, "A joy to have in class!"

    Ms. TRUONG: We can't help Asher anymore. I can't save my son. It should not be acceptable in 2010 that these sort of things happen, that these kids are dying like this. It's just wrong.

    ROSSEN: Hm. The family says they blame the school district for allowing this to go on, that they complained several times but got the blow-off. The district denies that accusation, telling NBC News in a statement, "Upon enrollment, his mother reported his personal history, which included post-traumatic disorder. The parents made no contact with the school regarding concerns of bullying."

    ROSSEN: That said, school officials, Natalie , have now launched a full investigation.

    MORALES: All right, Jeff Rossen , thanks so much. And Asher 's parents , Amy and David Truong , join us now, along with their spokesperson, Louis Geigerman . Good morning. Thanks to you all. And I 'm so sorry. I know how hard it is for you to be here just a week later. We're so sorry for your loss.

    Ms. TRUONG: Thank you for having us.

    MORALES: And I know, Amy , you've said Asher was such a special young boy , so different. How was he?

    Ms. TRUONG: He was just extremely bright and very giving and a wonderful sense of humor, and he loved his pets and was just a regular little boy .

    MORALES: Just a very sensitive kid.

    Ms. TRUONG: Yes. Indeed.

    MORALES: Absolutely. You knew about the bullying. He had been enduring this for two years, he talked about this with you. And, Amy , the night before he took his own life , you even asked him if things were OK. What did he tell you?

    Ms. TRUONG: He said he was fine. You know, we cupped his little face in our little hands and, you know, brought him close to the lamp. It was almost time for bed and, you know, we looked into his eyes and he seemed sad. But he said he was fine.

    MORALES: And did you ask him if things were getting worse or you just accepted that, you know, he was just dealing with it in his own way.

    Ms. TRUONG: We hadn't realized that essentially it had picked up where it left off once school had started up again. It started, you know, in August...

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. TRUONG: ...on the 23rd, and he died September 23rd . So it had just been a month.

    MORALES: Yeah. And, David , I know that you'd had a conversation with Asher as well. He had just told you that he was gay. And he seemed happy, he seemed relieved to have that off his chest, you've said. Did he seem like he was going into the school year with a better attitude?

    Mr. TRUONG: Absolutely. He made a lot of changes in his life and he wanted just to try to fit in as best he could.

    MORALES: Hm.

    Mr. TRUONG: And he came out and told me, ' Yep , I think I'm gay.' I said, 'OK. That's OK.'

    MORALES: But at school you knew that this was going on, and you had talked to the school ...

    Ms. TRUONG: Mm-hmm.

    MORALES: ... and I know you say that you had talked to his counselors.

    Ms. TRUONG: Yes, ma'am.

    MORALES: What did they tell you how they were handling it?

    Ms. TRUONG: The most we ever got was, 'We'll take care of it.'

    Mr. TRUONG: We never really got a chance to speak to them.

    MORALES: Right. In fact, in a statement to NBC News the school district said that you didn't contact them about Asher being bullied. They did say that you contacted Asher 's counselor, as we mentioned, who then alerted his teachers and the assistant principal about what they said was a significant emotional struggle within the family. What's your response when you hear that coming from the school district ?

    Mr. TRUONG: Very callous and cold. Our son just took his life because of what happened at school and now they're going to say that -- the school year started. He hid a lot of stuff just to keep it away from us...

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Mr. TRUONG: ...so he didn't have to feel like he's putting a burden on our -- on us.

    MORALES: Are you going to be seeking -- Louis , is the family seeking legal action against the school , the district?

    Mr. LOUIS GEIGERMAN: Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am, we are.

    MORALES: And what is your hope with that?

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: Well, several things. Number one, we really want to change the consciousness of society so that this type of environment, this type of culture will not exist in a school . I mean, that's really what the problem is. A culture of hostility, of intolerance existed at this campus. And this is not the only campus that this is happening across the country.

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: We read about...

    MORALES: Three just in the last two weeks.

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: Right. It's an epidemic -- it's at epidemic proportions now.

    MORALES: Absolutely.

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: And we need to talk to people besides those -- I mean, certainly this is -- it's unfortunate that a situation like this, we're talking to grieved parents .

    MORALES: Mm-hmm.

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: We also need to talk to students that are currently being bullied to be able to explain what it means to be bullied.

    MORALES: Absolutely.

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: Asher can't speak for himself. Those that are alive can...

    MORALES: And I know...

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: ...and that hopefully will change....

    MORALES: And I know that's why, Amy and David , you're here today...

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: That's true.

    MORALES: ...just a week after losing your son.

    Ms. TRUONG: Yes, ma'am.

    Mr. TRUONG: Right.

    MORALES: And you now have to go back to his funeral service tomorrow. How would you like him to be remembered?

    Ms. TRUONG: We want people to remember our son as just a kind heart, a sensitive young man who had such a bright , bright future ahead of him. You know, when he grew up, he wanted to help people. And although he can't help people now, we can in his honor, and we don't want our son to have died in vain if there's any way we can help anyone else.

    MORALES: Well, you are showing so much courage for being here today. I know how hard this is for you, so thank you for taking your time, Amy and David .

    Ms. TRUONG: Thank you.

    Mr. TRUONG: Thank you.

    MORALES: And we cannot express enough how sorry we are for your loss.

    Ms. TRUONG: Thank you.

    Mr. TRUONG: Thank you.

    Mr. GEIGERMAN: Thank you.

    MORALES: Amy and David Truong and Louis Geigerman , thank you all for being here.

Data: Tormented teens

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