By Brody Levesque | COON RAPIDS, MN -- As the Anoka-Hennepin School District struggles over negative perceptions of how it deals with bullying, critics including the mother of Justin Aaberg- an openly gay student who killed himself as a result of bullying- question school board officials' reasons in appointing a leading anti-gay rights opponent to the newly created anti-bullying task force.
The Anoka-Hennepin board named Bryan Lindquist, a prominent member of the Parents Action League, as a community member of the district’s new task force.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists Parents Action League (PAL) as one of 27 active anti-gay hate groups across the country, specifically for demonising and lying about LGBT people.
Tammy Aaberg's 15-year old son, Justin, committed suicide in 2010. "He was bullied because he was gay," she said. Aaberg said that she had hopes the task force would find ways to better protect kids like her son.
"I would like to make sure that they adopt better policies and better ways of handling bullying," she said.
Aaberg applied to be on the task force but was turned down. Now she's expressing concern about Bryan Lindquist.
"Seriously? Tom Heidemann (Anoka-Hennepin school board chair) felt that he had to give "the conservative-Christian view" a place on the Antibullying Task Force by letting Bryan Lindquist from the Parent Action League, a hate group for LGBT people, on the board but not a place of a parent of a gay youth who is dead and was bullied in the district and knows what these students are up against? Another slap in the face by Anoka-Hennepin. I think they are out to hurt me over and over on purpose as that is all they've done since my son Justin died."
Last March, in testimony before the school board, Lindquist referred to homosexuality as a "sexual disorder." Those statements concern and offend Aaberg.
"I go back and I look at articles and things that he said at board meetings ... that's what concerns me," Aaberg said. "I'm really worried of what is actually going to happen in this anti-bullying task force."
Linquist's testimony came as the school board voted to accept a settlement agreement with six former and current district students who had filed two lawsuits over the then current policy requiring staff to remain neutral on topics related to sexual orientation.
The old "neutrality policy" required teachers remain neutral when the subject of sexual orientation came up in the classroom. The policy faced intense criticism after six students committed suicide in a span of less than two years. Friends and family of the students say were bullied because of their sexual orientation.
The settlement creates a five-year partnership between the school district and the federal departments of Justice and Education to help create programs and procedures to improve the school climate for all students. It also required the district to hire staff to improve the climate for LGBT students and more closely monitor and report bullying.
The task force was another required piece of a settlement and is scheduled to spend several months evaluating the district's culture around bullying, to possibly recommend changes in policy. Twenty-six people are a part of the district's task force on bullying. They include teachers, staff, administration, community members and a handful of students.
As an anti-gay activist and PAL spokesman, Lindquist has labeled homosexuality a “lifestyle choice” and a “sexual disorder,” and has previously claimed that homosexuality is a health risk. Prior to his appointment, he demanded that the district include scientifically discredited “ex-gay” propaganda on its website and place so-called “ex-homosexual” and “ex-transgender” materials in high school guidance offices and media centers.
Tom Heidemann, who chairs the Anoka-Hennepin school board, assembled the task force from more than 70 applicants.
"We'll bring together community members and experts to just review how things are going in Anoka-Hennepin and advise the board on how to make things better," Heidemann said.
In an emailed response to Melissa Thompson, a parent who expressed concerns about Lindquist’s appointment and whose application to the task force was also rejected, School Board Chair Tom Heidemann claimed that Lindquist was named to ensure that task force members reflected “very diverse points of view.”
In an interview with Minnesota Public radio, Heidemann defended appointing Lindquist telling MPR;
"He brings a conservative-Christian point of view to the committee and also a commitment to making sure that there's no bullying and harassment of students in school for any reason," Heidemann said.
Lindquist declined to speak to MPR and deflected critics in an e-mail writing; "the task force should concern itself with "helping create a safe learning environment for all students," and not with him."
Aaberg however sees it differently. She pointed out a letter to the editor of a local newspaper Lindquist wrote that was published today in which, he defended the proposed ban on same-sex marriage by a constitutional amendment that is set to go before voters next month.
In the letter he writes:
[...] Suicidal tendencies are shocking: 24 percent of children raised by homosexual men and 12 percent of children raised by lesbian mothers admitted to having recently contemplated suicide, compared to 5 percent of those raised by biological parents or even a single parent.[...] Children raised in homes where homosexuality or other same-sex behaviors are present face increased risks.
"The social experiment of legalizing same-sex unions will prove disastrous for kids and bring untold dysfunction and damage to children and society," he writes.
Aaberg sees his stance as intransigent which leads her to doubt that he will consider a fair and balanced approach instead holding fast to his perceptions and beliefs. She sees this approach as doing more harm than good. "There's no room for compromising," she noted.
The Anoka-Hennepin bullying task force will meet monthly through the end of the school year. It's expected to report its finding and recommendations to the school board by June.