CHAMPLIN, Minn. (AP) — 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.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (39)
  1. pat says:

    Even though I do not agree with the gay lifestyle, we live in a free country and this poor kid should never have had to endure any bullying. I am sorry for his family, if one can judge a picture, he looks like a great kid.

    1. jackactionhero says:

      Which part do you “not agree with” specifically, pat?

      1. What Ever says:

        If he described what he didn’t agree with, it would never made it on the blog.

    2. Debbie says:

      I agree with you pat, i don’t agree with they gay lifestyle but i would never be mean to someone for the choice they make. So sorry to the parents of this child and shame on the ones who just couldn’t keep their mouths shut!!

      1. just saying says:

        I don’t agree with the straight lifestyle, but I would never be mean to someone for the choices they make too. Just because a person makes a choice to be hetero doesn’t mean that I should discrimiate,or bully, or hate.

        1. Justine says:

          Just trying to justify the gay lifestyle again. This child shouldn’t have been attacked physically/ verbally but it’s interesting how becoming gay is more prevalant now. It’s because it’s pushed on the children as a viable option in life. Just another segue for “gay pride” and it’s objectives to push it’s way into the school – through antibullying

          1. Tom says:

            Good Grief! Being gay is not a choice. You are either born gay or born straight. Would you say that social conservatives are born nuts? Or did they choose to be nuts?

          2. just saying says:

            No Justine, it’s honesty that’s becoming more prevalent, I just took what I read and turned it around, and voila, look at how you interpreted it.

  2. Kevin says:

    I agree Pat….to each their own…..we all have the right to live as we please.

  3. markH says:

    Even though I do not agree with having any hair color besides brown, we live in a free country….

    The point is WHO CARES whether or not you “agree with the gay lifestyle.” The point here (and the only point as far as I can see) is that no one deserves to be bullied, pushed around, taunted, terrorized, or demonized for any reason-let alone one which is entirely beyond their control. Peace.

  4. Zeus says:

    Is there a fat kid support group too? How about one for having red hair? Stutterers? Never hear of those, but I hear of kids being bullied for those reasons.

    1. jackactionhero says:

      Are you being serious?

      Is this your way of saying you hate gays?

      What should be done with gays? Should they be allowed to be pediatricians? Daycare providers? Kindergarten teachers?

      1. Zeus says:

        Absolutely not. I’m just wondering why the reasons for being bullied are being segregated. Bullying is bullying, and it should be dealt with accordingly. No one reason is “worse” than the other. Schools should deal with the bullys, not focus on the supposed reason for it.

      2. pat says:

        you are a pretty good bully yourself jackactionhero, just because someone says something you disagree with you react in a hostile manner, your posts are very aggressive, would you attack someone physically because they have a different opinion?

        1. pat's doctor says:

          Down Pat, let your meds kick in. Being so smug is not becoming.

      3. Lemper says:

        jack is just trying to shame you into believing you’re wrong to think anything other than what he thinks. You cannot possibly have any opinion as to what you believe as morally wrong because people like Jack want to make you believe you’re a hater of a specific people instead of the behavior. These are distinguishable.

        1. Lemper's lover says:

          Yes, it’s true that we must distinguish heteros from their hateful behaviors and smug attitudes.

    2. Hello! says:

      Actually there is a support group for over weight kids.

  5. Mr D says:

    We need a support group for Skinny kids too. The majority of kids now are fat and they are picking on the skinny ones. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for them.

  6. jackactionheroisdumb says:

    We don’t live in a Utopia.

    Obviously, in a perfect world, we could sit here and say, “No one deserves to be bullied,” but that just isn’t realisitic.

    Yes, the schools need to treat all bullying equally and intervene in cases like this just the same as they would for any other bullying incident based on weight issues, clothing, etc.

    But the real issue here is that it is impossible for schools to prevent all bullying. Impossible.

    So it’s up to the parents to better equip their children for the inevitible bullying they will surely endure so that they don’t feel the need to kill themselves.

    Conversely, parents need to teach their kids to embrace the differences in the people of the world to try to reduce the hostile bullying.

    1. Mellissa says:

      Let’s embrace pedophelia too. They have strong feelings for children so why can’t they pursue their feelings too?

      1. Tom says:

        @ Mellissa

        You are obviously a social conservatives for that comment! I can tell that because when ever this subject comes up they say something to the effect we should embrace pedophelia or something to do with animals. Neither of those have nothing to do with gay people.

      2. not surprised says:

        You first, obviously you are an expert. Mellissa is a closeted pederast because these thoughts came from her head first. You embrace it you perv and leave the rest of us out of it.

  7. smb says:

    We wonder why kids are bullied or are bullies. This is a touching story of a mother who is trying to turn her grief into something positive by helping other kids and the supposed adults reading it turn into a bunch of idiots.

    Why can’t we just say that it’s nice of her. Why do we have to go on rants about other bullied kids who don’t get support groups.

    The reason those other bullied kids don’t necessarily need support groups is because they get support. In the Anoka Hennepin district if a child is bullied for being over weight then the teacher can not only discipline the bully but also say there is nothing wrong with being over weight. They can say there is nothing wrong with being a redhead, or Jewish, or Christian, or anything else they might get bullied for. But the teacher cannot say there is nothing wrong with being gay. Therefore implying there is something wrong.

    I for one wish Tammy Aaberg my deepest sympathy for her loss and my utmost support in her current endeavor.

  8. james2 says:

    One of best parts of being gay is how we are trivialized. We are marginalized in almost every way, but some heteros always find a way to turn what we say into something not important or insignificant. Or we are accused of things that aren’t true.

    This kid probably discovered that God hates him in church, that kids hated him at school, and that he learned to hate himself with no reason to live. And some of the comments are this page reinforce what I’m saying.

    Good for his Mom who is turning her grief into something positive and good. For most of us there are no role models, ie until now. I pray she is successful.

    One more thing. We don’t have a lifstyle, we have a life. What constitutes a lifestyle is how you spend your money etc.

    If you say something about me, turn to the mirror and say it about yourself. If it’s not true for you, then it’s not true for me either.

    1. Shannon says:

      Yeah, seeing the “lifestyle” comment all the time bugs me. Gay people are just like straight people. They have families. They have jobs. They go to church (if the church hasn’t chased them out). They vote. They love. They go out to dinner. They celebrate accomplishments. They feel pain. They like to do fun things on the weekends. They’re just like other human beings. So saying you don’t approve of the “gay lifestyle” makes no sense. It’s not like gay people live radical lives. People just need to admit they are judgmental about the idea of what goes on in bedrooms. And then they need to be laughed at for spending so much time thinking about what other people do in their bedrooms. Or else I’m going to start saying “I disapprove of the Christian lifestyle. The missionary position gets boring.”

      1. Tom says:

        @ Shannon

        Very well said!

      2. Rogue says:

        @ Shannon
        Who sent you a copy of the GAY AGENDA?

        “Gay people are just like straight people. They have families. They have jobs. They go to church (if the church hasn’t chased them out). They vote. They love. They go out to dinner. They celebrate accomplishments. They feel pain. They like to do fun things on the weekends. They’re just like other human beings.”

        Thank you – At least someone gets it

    2. Hello! says:

      Agreed!! I hate when people say I live a gay life style. Do straight people live a straight life style? NO they live life. So do I.

  9. sad says:

    Hi Amanda how are you doing? I thought you would be in New York protesting.

  10. Mr D says:

    While I was out buying some ammo today I saw a three of kids playing in the parking lot. They were all comparing phones. One had a i-phone. One had a Android, and one had a two year old flip phone. The two kids with the smart phones were making fun of the kid with the old flip phone. I felt horrible for the poor kid. I wanted to smash the two kids smart phones. But then I had a vision. I thought about starting a support group for phone deprived kids. Eventually I hoped to get some Bammy Bucks to fund my dream. After all that’s the new American way.

  11. Jake says:

    Kids get bullied all the time, whether straight OR gay. I had a tooth blasted out of my mouth by a ‘bully’, just because I asked a girlfriend to not speak to the moron anymore. Did I put a rope around my neck? NOPE. Get over it. Keep your sexual attractions to yourself in school. Try learning how to READ and WRITE instead, you will have less trouble, and you will have a better chance at succeeding in life.

  12. Jake says:

    The kid’s photo says it all. No way would I approve of such a thing, at such an age. Way too many things can go wrong.

  13. Jake says:

    I lay the most blame for this kid’s “troubles” at the feet of his parents. At the age of 15, SEX should NOT be the HIGHEST MOTIVATOR. WE, the GENERAL PUBLIC, are NOT getting the FULL STORY here. It is NOT NORMAL for a 15 year old, of ANY orientation, so say to themselves, “If I can’t have sex, I MUST DIE”. The average 15 year old doesn’t even KNOW what SEX is, let alone GOOD SEX. Somehow, this kid had a very troubled childhood, and if his family wants to make it so PUBLIC, then they should be much more willing to tell the WHOLE TRUTH as to what led up to his suicide, because unless we know HOW he was raised, unless we know WHO he hung out with, unless we know WHAT he was subjected to, unless we know WHERE he was, even on the internet, we will never really know WHY he killed himself. SOMEBODY motivated this kid to push his orientation to the point where it would push him over the edge, and IMO, those individuals should be investigated. Sounds like a lot of brainwashing going on here. Kinda surprised that law enforcement gave up so soon..

  14. Jake needs help says:

    Jake, it’s sad that your gay parents couldn’t convince you to be gay. They bought you rollerblades, and pink shirts. They took you to the ballet and forced you to accessorize your outfits. And look at how you turned out. Get some therapy.

  15. Dripable Service says:

    At least some bloggers can still write. Thanks for this piece.

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