Some parents in Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District are upset that a man who deems homosexuality a "lifestyle choice" and "sexual disorder" now sits on a task force created to protect students -- particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students -- from bullying.
Bryan Lindquist is a member of The Parents Action League, a local group that civil rights organization The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group that attacks homosexuality. He was recently named to sit on the district's 25-member anti-bullying task force composed of students, school employees and community members, and mothers Tammy Aaberg and Melissa Thompson are outraged.
"That would be like asking somebody from the [Ku Klux] Klan to sit on the committee that plans black history month," Thompson told KSTP.
Aaberg, whose 15-year-old son Justin was victim to anti-gay bullying and committed suicide two years ago, was rejected from the task force. Justin was one of a number of teens in Anoka-Hennepin schools who had committed suicide in recent years, several of whom were gay and reportedly acted as a result of being bullied. Last September, Aaberg took to hand-delivering hundreds of thousands of signatures petitioning Rep. Michele Bachmann to publicly address gay bullying in Minnesota's largest school district.
The situation in Anoka-Hennepin Schools was so bad that Minnesota public health officials deemed the area a "suicide contagion" because of the unusually high number of suicides and attempted suicides, according to the school district's website. The designation has since been retracted.
Aaberg and two lawsuits filed against the district argued that the Anoka-Hennepin's sexual orientation curriculum policy is in part to blame. It states that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues should be discussed outside of the classroom and that employees "shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions."
This policy was a target of a lawsuit filed against the district last fall on behalf of a sixth student victim to gay bullying, who argued that the rule keeps teachers from being able to protect students who are perceived as gay from harassment. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian rights filed suit in July on behalf of five other students -- three who identify themselves as gay or bisexual and two who do not -- for similar allegations.
The district's new anti-bullying task force was created as part of a settlement for those lawsuits as well as an agreement this year with the U.S. Department of Justice, whose civil rights investigation found that Anoka-Hennepin's sex-based bullying contributed to a "hostile environment." The agency reported that students said they were subject to to harsh and persistent harassment for being gay, perceived as gay or failing to conform to gender stereotypes. While the students reported abuse to the school, teachers and administrators failed to protect them. The district's policy was also invalidated.
LGBT advocacy group Truth Wins Out has publicly condemned Anoka Hennepin's appointment of Lindquist to the task force, drawing attention to his history of outspoken support for ex-gay therapy in schools. The group also notes that like Aaberg, the task force application of Jefferson Fietek, faculty advisor to the local Gay-Straight Alliance and an anti-bullying trainer, was rejected.
“In addition to being shockingly tone-deaf, the exclusion of equality-minded community leaders like Fietek and Aaberg in favor of Bryan Lindquist represents a slap in the face to LGBT students, as well as parents and families that have lost an LGBT child to bullying-related suicides,” TWO Executive Director Wayne Besen said in a statement. “Further, it calls into question the district’s commitment to ending bullying and harassment.”
School Board chair Tom Heidemann gave final approval to the anti-bullying task force's new members. In an note to a concerned parent, Heidemann said Lindquist's inclusion in the group was to ensure "very diverse points of view," according to TWO. And in an interview with WTSP, he asserted the board and Lindquist's commitment to addressing bullying.
"Based on the testimony [Lindquist] had at the board, he's concerned about bullying harassment of students," Hidemann said, adding that intimidating behavior would not be tolerated and any task force member who does not perform will be removed. "I think again that in order for us to be effective as an organization, we cannot exclude any person based on their religious beliefs."
Although the Lindquist had requested on behalf of the Parents Action League that the district "provide webinars/seminars for all staff on overcoming sexual disorders," he told the Pioneer Press in March that his group is not anti-gay.
"That has never been what this group is about," Lindquist said. "We just want discussion of sexual orientation to take place in the homes with parents and not with a teacher in a classroom full of impressionable kids. How can you have a dialogue if you classify everyone who disagrees with you as a hate group?"
Still, parents are concerned about Lindquist's role, and are worried for students on the task force who are in the Gay Straight Alliance. TWO has reprinted the letter sent to Aaberg informing her of the decision not to include her on the task force. The note, in part, reads:
Unfortunately, we could not appoint everyone who applied. We reviewed the applications thoroughly and worked hard to select committee members who would represent a broad cross-section of the community, being especially mindful of protected classes, gender balance, and religious affiliation.
We will keep your name on file as a person interested in this topic. If at some point in their work the task force wishes to seek additional input, we will invite comment from you and the other applicants who were not appointed to the group. We will also send you a link to the final report when it is posted online.