The mother of a gay teenager who committed suicide last year met Thursday with Rep. Michele Bachmann’s office to ask, at the very least, that the congresswoman publicly denounce anti-LGBT bullying.
Tammy Aaberg, whose 15-year-old son, Justin, was a perpetual target of harassment by fellow students and hanged himself in July 2010, was joined by three students from the Anoka-Hennepin School District and two fellow antibullying advocates in a meeting with Deb Steiskal, Bachmann’s constituent services officer, that lasted just over an hour at the congresswoman’s district office in Waite Park, Minn. The group delivered a petition with 141,000 signatures urging Bachmann to speak out on school bullying.
A reporter with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune also attended but was asked to leave the constituent meeting about halfway through when she had identified herself as a member of the media, according to Aaberg. (The reporter, Maria Elena Baca, confirmed that she had been asked to leave.)
“I think Congresswoman Bachmann is in a leadership role to speak out against bullying,” especially now that she is running for the GOP presidential nomination, Aaberg told The Advocate. “I’m not asking her to change her beliefs. But all kids should be protected in school.”
In a meeting that she described as cordial and productive, Aaberg talked about the pervasive bullying her son had faced. The problem was compounded by a school policy that did not adequately counter such harassment, she said. To the contrary, Justin’s school allowed such events as the Day of Truth to occur: The annual antigay event is organized by the social conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund, though the “ex-gay” group Exodus International has also supported Day of Truth in the past.
Justin Anderson, a 2010 graduate of Blaine High School in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, also spoke about an antigay culture within the school district — an atmosphere perhaps not unique in the country, but one now the subject of federal investigations by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education as well as a lawsuit filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of bullied students. The two groups claim that Anoka-Hennepin’s “neutrality” policy on sexual orientation creates a hostile and dangerous environment for gay youth. Eight students in the district, the state’s largest with 38,000 students, have committed suicide in the last two years.
“I talked about how, when I was a student, I got harassed and bullied, and that I believe that staff weren’t responding as well as they should have,” Anderson said of the meeting. “I can’t count a single day since middle school where I didn’t hear ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘fag.’ And I remember a student saying gay people should just go kill themselves, and the teacher just told them to be quiet.”
Bachmann’s past statements on the issue have been less than compassionate, however. “I just don't know how we're ever going to get to point of zero tolerance, and what does it mean?” she said during a 2006 Minnesota Education Committee hearing in reference to school antibullying policies. “What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression? Will it mean that what form of behavior will there be — will we be expecting boys to be girls?”
Bachmann has not publicly addressed the Anoka-Hennepin crisis — one that got the district labeled a “suicide contagion area” by public health officials. Aaberg and Anderson said that Steiskal took extensive notes during the meeting and said she “would make sure the petition gets to who it needs to get to,” Aaberg said. “So whatever that means. That’s pretty open-ended.”
“Hopefully it doesn’t mean the trash,” Anderson added.
In an email response to The Advocate, Bachmann press secretary Becky Rogness wrote, “The petition will go to the Congresswoman.”
During the meeting, Aaberg said she and Steiskal spoke of a shared tragedy: the death of a child. In 2008, Steiskal’s 29-year-old daughter, Julie, drowned in the Temperance River in northeast Minnesota. “We were grateful that we had almost 30 years that we were blessed with her life,” Steiskal told Kare11 News in 2008. “We’ll miss her, but we know that we’ll see her again.”
The signatures — about 500 of which were from constituents of Bachmann’s — were collected through CREDO Action, according to Becky Bonds, the progressive organization’s political director.
“This was a meeting, not a protest. The point was to try and get [Congresswoman Bachmann] to actually listen to her constituents, and people around the country who are concerned about this issue,” Bonds said.
Aaberg will travel to Washington, D.C., next week for a second annual summit on bullying held by the Department of Education.