Is “Affirmation” Enough To Prevent Gay Teen Suicides?

If you’ve been following Care2’s LGBT cause, chances are you’re familiar with the drama unfolding in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, where a wave of student suicides has some parents and activist blaming district policies for failing to protect gay teens from harassment and bullying.

Last week, Rolling Stone published an article taking an intimate look into the lives of a few of these teens…and their surviving friends and family. The article is chilling: students complaining of anti-gay slurs were ignored or brushed aside as faculty attempted to remain “neutral” on issues of sexual orientation.

One student, Brittany, details her abuse and the inaction of school administrators:

Brittany didn’t look like most girls in blue-collar Anoka, Minnesota, a former logging town on the Rum River, a conventional place that takes pride in its annual Halloween parade – it bills itself the “Halloween Capital of the World.” Brittany was a low-voiced, stocky girl who dressed in baggy jeans and her dad’s Marine Corps sweatshirts. By age 13, she’d been taunted as a “cunt” and “cock muncher” long before such words had made much sense. When she told administrators about the abuse, they were strangely unresponsive, even though bullying was a subject often discussed in school-board meetings. The district maintained a comprehensive five-page anti-bullying policy, and held diversity trainings on racial and gender sensitivity. Yet when it came to Brittany’s harassment, school officials usually told her to ignore it, always glossing over the sexually charged insults. Like the time Brittany had complained about being called a “fat dyke”: The school’s principal, looking pained, had suggested Brittany prepare herself for the next round of teasing with snappy comebacks – “I can lose the weight, but you’re stuck with your ugly face” – never acknowledging she had been called a “dyke.” As though that part was OK. As though the fact that Brittany was bisexual made her fair game.

The article also follows Samantha, a 13-year-old tomboy who was spearheading efforts to start a GSA at her school – who, after bullying from classmates and conflicts with the school and local conservative groups over the GSA, shot herself in the bathtub with a hunting rifle. Then there’s the case of Justin, a gay 14-year-old who hung himself in his bedroom after enduring two years of non-stop bullying.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district is understandably upset about Rolling Stone’s article, complaining that it mischaracterized the district’s response to the rash of student suicides. Superintendent Dennis Carlson claimed in a statement to Pioneer Press that none of the suicides were linked to bullying, despite the claims of parents to the contrary.

Julie Blaha, the head of the Anoka-Hennepin teacher’s union, expressed that the article glossed over some of the progress the district has made recently. For instance, the teacher’s union has recently introduced a proposed “Respectful Learning Environment” policy. Rather than simply telling faculty not to comment on sexual orientation positively or negatively, this proposed policy requires faculty to “affirm” the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of gender, sex, religion, race, or sexual orientation.

The part of this policy that’s troubling is this stipulation:

The draft proposal says it’s not the district’s role to take positions on contentious political, religious, social, or economic issues, and teachers and staff should not try to persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoint on such issues. It says discussions of these issues should be presented in an impartial, balanced and objective manner, allowing a respectful exchange of views.

While this policy may make it easier on LGBT students by allowing teachers to defend them without worrying about losing their jobs, it doesn’t address the fundamental root problem of allowing bullies to go unchallenged. It would be problematic and unconstitutional for a teacher to try to persuade a conservative student that their deeply-held religious beliefs about homosexuality are wrong – but how are teachers supposed to remain impartial to religiously-motivated hate speech and affirm gay student’s identities at the same time?

There is no “respectful” exchange of views possible when someone is attacking a student’s right to exist. Studies have shown staying in the closet and anti-gay bullying are harmful to teenagers, contributing to depression and suicide. The stakes are too high for schools to worry about offending conservative parents – the cost of inaction isn’t merely the hurt feelings of gay students. The Rolling Stone article makes it quite clear that what is at stake is literally gay students’ lives.

Frankly, the proposed policy sounds like an attempt to avoid problems with both the parents of gay children and conservative, anti-gay activists, and it may not effectively change much on the ground. It may be a step in the right direction, but it is not a victory yet by any stretch of the imagination. Until a zero-tolerance policy for bullying is implemented, one that wastes less effort on sparing the feelings of the bully, queer students will continue to suffer.

Affirmation is fantastic, but what the students of Anoka-Hennepin really need right now is action.


Related Stories:

Teachers Against District’s ‘Controversial’ Topics Ban

Anoka-Hennepin School District Sued Over Anti-LGBT Bullying

Nine Suicides In One Year, But Not Our Fault Says School District


Photo by: Guillaume Paumier


Julie B.
Julie B.5 years ago

I want to correct an error in this post. The teacher's union did not put forward this policy, we would rather not have a specific policy but instead get to work classroom by classroom to improve school climate. The statement I made to the board about it is here: A more detailed statement of the action we'd like to see can be found here: I think you'll see we agree with you more than disagree.

Tom Y.
Tom Y6 years ago

I don't think the affirmation of propaganda's what these students need; they need specific protection from specific people, namely their maladjusted and aggressive peers. And they need someone to stand with them. Every student in the district (and on the continent) needs a deep comprehension of civility and the spine to resist categorizing themselves and demeaning others.

Tough calls. Human nature doesn't always cooperate. But that protection's needed, and it starts with the adults. Where are they in the picture?

Rosemary Graf
Rosemary Graf6 years ago

It's time we teach our youth that they must accept all people. We are all human beings. No more nasty names and more accepting all for what they are. We must stand up for all people.

Jane H.
Jane H6 years ago

This is just heart breaking---we need that Federal law introduced by the Senator from Minnesota which outlaws discrimination against GLBT students. And we need to win over-all equality for LGBT people as soon as possible.

Carole H.
Carole Hagen6 years ago


Allan Yorkowitz
.6 years ago

It is absolutely the school's responsibility to protect children - regardless of issue. This backward system has been failing their students in this regard. Why the hell are counselors employed? Teachers have a moral, ethical non-written code to not look away. This is one of the dozens of your resonsibilities as an educator - do you know what it means to be an educator? I question it.

Isabel Ramirez
Isabel Ramirez6 years ago

A school can not remain neutral if half of its student's are being tortured daily. they should stand up to the bullies. They are the authority figures there, by doing nothing, it proves that bullying kids is ok when it's not

Sandy Erickson
Sandy Erickson6 years ago

The gays that I know seem to have some major issues with themselves. One of my friends I don't conceder gay as he seems to be angry all the time even in the company of his friends.

roxana mendez-rojas
Past Member 6 years ago

I think the school distric keeps forgetting a bet important poit. hs is hard enough as is without having someone at your thought about your sexual orientation; especially at such an age when your still trying to figure it all out. guaranteed if lgbtq was the norm then straight kids would be just as outraged. Stop the bullying!!!!!!

Lilithe Magdalene

Debra - you are right - and wrong. There needs to be an overall addressing of bullying - and there is a national conversation about it - not just about LGBT kids. Keep reading Care2 - there are lots of articles about bullying.