CHAMPLIN, Minn. – After Tammy Aaberg’s 15-year-old son, Justin, killed himself last year after enduring anti-gay bullying, she made it her mission to tell his story and protect other gay and lesbian teens.
She pressed Anoka-Hennepin public schools to change some of its policies and helped with lawsuits against the district by students who claimed they were harassed over their sexuality. Now Aaberg has co-founded Justin’s Gift, a support group for LGBT students in the suburban district.
The group has scheduled its first event for Oct. 22, a Halloween costume party at Champlin Community Center. It’s open to anyone, but organizers expect most students will be from the local school district.
Justin’s Gift is now little more than a website Aaberg runs from her basement desk, but she and the other four board members have big dreams for the group. She said in five years they hope to have their own community center; in 10 years they want to shelter homeless gay youth.
“Somehow in my head, I think I’ll make this better and he’ll come back, but I know it won’t,” she said of her son.
The district’s treatment of LGBT students has received a lot of scrutiny because seven of its students- including Justin Aaberg- killed themselves in less than two years. A lawsuit claims at least four of the students were gay or perceived to be so.
This summer, six current and former students sued the district over a policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed, which the plaintiffs claim prevented teachers from protecting them from anti-gay bullying.
Investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice are also looking into complaints of harassment and bullying in the district. Lawyers for the government, the harassed students and the district are in mediated talks to reach a settlement.
Brett Johnson, a spokesman for Anoka-Hennepin Schools, said that he wasn’t familiar with Justin’s Gift, but the district endorses the idea of additional support to LGBT students outside of school.
“We know that LGBT kids are some of the most vulnerable kids in our schools,” he said. “Any support for them is welcome, wherever it comes from.”
Two Anoka-Hennepin school employees are on the board of Justin’s Gift- Jefferson Fietek, a drama teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, and Colleen Cashen, a psychologist and counselor at the Northdale Middle School. Johnson said there are no district policies preventing them from participating.
Fietek, the vice president of Justin’s Gift, said he sees the need for a community-based group because many students don’t want the exposure of joining a gay support group within their own school. “There are some kids who just do not feel safe in their home schools,” Fietek said.
One of Fietek’s students, Samantha Johnson, killed herself in October 2009. He said she was perceived as being a lesbian and taunted because of it. Fietek said he intends to tell students about Justin’s Gift, regardless of the district’s neutrality policy.
“We think it is important for young people to see where they fit in,” Fietek said.
That would include Justin Anderson, 19, who graduated from Blaine High School in 2010. Anderson, the youth liaison for Justin’s Gift, said he and students like him were regularly subjected to anti-gay slurs. He said Justin’s Gift will fill gaps left by school-based groups that don’t meet during the summer and on holidays.
Aaberg said she has been getting technical help with fundraising and becoming a legal nonprofit from OutFront Minnesota, which has advocated on behalf of gay Minnesotans for more than 20 years.
Phil Duran, the legal director of OutFront, said there’s no question of the need for more groups like Justin’s Gift. “Organizations like this really do serve a very critical purpose because so many times LGBT young people feel very, very isolated,” Duran said. “It’s that isolation that can really get to somebody.”
Justin’s Gift isn’t the first community-based support group for gay young people. In Minneapolis, a group called District 202 provided programs and meeting space for gay young people for nearly 20 years before fundraising dried up.
Now it operates as an online-only group.
Cheryl Jensen, interim executive director of District 202, said she is trying to get back to providing physical space. “I think money is tight right now, but I think the need is there,” she said.
Justin’s Gift: http://www.justinsgift.org