Anoka, Minnesota, is well and truly the face of evil in the United States. The school district has allowed conditions to fester to the point where nine middle- and high-school students have committed suicide in a two-year period. For folks in New Orleans, try to visualize NINE suicides from the student bodies of the boys' and girls' Catholic high schools in the metro area. One suicide at Mount Carmel or Archbishop Rummel, and you'd have concern and an increased awareness in counselors across town. Two and there would a major soul-searching. By the third, the "Catholic League" would be on red alert.
The Baptists of Anoka, MN, let the number in their town go to NINE. And they had a good idea what the source of the problem was:
There was another common thread: Four of the nine dead were either gay or perceived as such by other kids, and were reportedly bullied. The tragedies come at a national moment when bullying is on everyone's lips, and a devastating number of gay teens across the country are in the news for killing themselves. Suicide rates among gay and lesbian kids are frighteningly high, with attempt rates four times that of their straight counterparts; studies show that one-third of all gay youth have attempted suicide at some point (versus 13 percent of hetero kids), and that internalized homophobia contributes to suicide risk.
Anoka, MN, is part of CongressCritter Michele Bachmann's district. Bachmann, a religious zealot known for making incredibly bigoted (and incredibly stupid) remarks on the floor of the US House of Representatives and on the Republican presidential campaign trail, is only a bit-player in this story, though. The real evil here are the voters who elected that nutjob to Congress and spread their hate into their school district.
As a former high school teacher who taught several teens who had attempted suicide, I'm stunned by the lack of action taken by the teachers and administrators in this school district. Anoka has become the poster child for this trend of bullying being permitted as "religious speech." The district, at the urging of local evangelical Christian congregations, implemented an incredibly discriminatory policy:
The policy became unofficially known as "No Homo Promo" and passed unannounced to parents and unpublished in the policy handbooks; most teachers were told about it by their principals. Teachers say it had a chilling effect and they became concerned about mentioning gays in any context. Discussion of homosexuality gradually disappeared from classes. "If you can't talk about it in any context, which is how teachers interpret district policies, kids internalize that to mean that being gay must be so shameful and wrong," says Anoka High School teacher Mary Jo Merrick-Lockett. "And that has created a climate of fear and repression and harassment."
So, a teacher trying to counsel a student who has been bullied by Baptist Wahabbists in Anoka is not allowed to discuss the root of the problem: Teh Gay. The educators, placing their careers before the welfare of their students caved, causing incidents like these:
At Anoka Middle School for the Arts, after Kyle Rooker was urinated upon from above in a boys' bathroom stall, an associate principal told him, "It was probably water." Jackson Middle School seventh-grader Dylon Frei was passed notes saying, "Get out of this town, fag"; when a teacher intercepted one such note, she simply threw it away.
Educators who simply dismiss or ignore bullying like this should be consisidered accessories after the fact of the crime. Middle schools in particular are jungles of adolescent hormones and incredibly hurtful children. The misfit kid, the geek, and the gay kid have to be able to turn to the teachers and staff for protection. These educators let them down.
Did these professionals ignore their professional and moral responsibilities to these children because they support the bullying, or was it out of fear for their jobs? Either way, students were taking their lives as a result. It got to SEVEN and the power of the Christians was still holding sway:
Individual teachers quietly began taking small risks, overstepping the bounds of neutrality to offer solace to gay students in crisis. "My job is just a job; these children are losing their lives," says Fietek. "The story I hear repeatedly is 'Nobody else is like me, nobody else is going through what I'm going through.' That's the lie they've been fed, but they're buying into it based on the fear we have about open and honest conversations about sexual orientation."
Baby-steps by the faculty after SEVEN suicides! Sweet fuck, as I said earlier, three would have put the Catholic schools in New Orleans on full alert.
Bachmann's allies will argue that homosexuality is a mental disorder, and that's what brought on the suicides. There's no legitimate scientific data to support these claims. There's tons of support for the connection between kids who get the crap beaten out of them and suicide, however.
It wouldn't have been hard for the Anoka-Hennepin School District to take a strong, sexually neutral stance on bullying, but clearly, the Christians of the district support bullying as a way to rid their communities of Teh Gay.
The NINE suicides in this cluster sparked a federal lawsuit. The plaintiffs have the support of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC have a long and successful track record when it comes to dealing with Christian hate groups, and that's essentially what the Anoka-Hennepin School District has become. Like any school district under fire, they've circled the wagons and entered that period of denial/damage-control where nothing will get done unless a judge forces the issue.
Let's hope that happens before the Christians bully a tenth kid to take their own life.