04/30/2012

Parents of Bullied Students Thank SPLC for Change at Minn. School District

Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center achieved a major milestone in its campaign to stop the rampant bullying and violence faced by LGBT students, and those students perceived to be LGBT, in school. In March, it reached a settlement agreement with Minnesota’s largest school district, which agreed to adopt a wide-ranging plan to protect LGBT students from harassment.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District, where at least four LGBT students died by suicide over a two-year period, was “ground zero” in the SPLC’s fight against bullying. A 2010 screening of the SPLC’s anti-bullying documentary, Bullied, in neighboring Minneapolis was attended by more than 2,000 people. The community’s concern was palpable. The school district’s policies desperately needed to change.

The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit in July 2011 on behalf of five Anoka-Hennepin students who faced relentless anti-LGBT bullying and attacks. Their school day included instances where they were choked, shoved, urinated on and even stabbed with a pencil. The settlement agreement contains specific requirements that are in motion to protect students from such abuse. The district’s compliance with the comprehensive settlement agreement is being monitored by the U.S. Justice Department for the next five years.

This agreement has begun to provide the parents of Anoka-Hennepin students with the peace of mind that their children can attend school without fear of harassment and abuse. The agreement also serves as a model for other school districts.

The SPLC recently received letters of thanks from the families of two of the students it represented. For these families, the lawsuit provided a powerful life lesson about taking a stand for change. The SPLC also received a letter from Tammy Aaberg, who lost her 15-year-old son, Justin, to suicide in 2010 after he endured anti-gay bullying in the school district. She wrote to thank the SPLC for helping to save other parents and students. These families have allowed their letters to be published to let others know what the agreement has meant for them – families whose children have endured the pain of anti-LGBT bullying.

Rebecca Rooker, mother of student Kyle Rooker

Dear Southern Poverty Law Center,

I wanted to take this moment to thank you for all of your work on behalf of my son, Kyle. Never in a million years did I believe that we would be able to see the changes that we were able to bring to the Anoka-Hennepin School District here in Minnesota.

The changes the SPLC settlement agreement brought to the district’s anti-bullying policies will help ensure that no student will have to endure the torment Kyle experienced as a student. It will also ensure no parent will have to endure the anguish I experienced: The repeated phone calls from your child to be picked up from school, to be rescued from the hell of relentless bullying.

We watched Kyle go from an excited learner to a kid who would rather stay home from school. We had resolved to just “do the time” at school and count down the days he had left. That’s when we were contacted by an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center asking about Kyle’s school experience.

SPLC Attorney Sam Wolfe was astute, sympathetic, a good listener and very encouraging of Kyle. Once we decided to work with the SPLC to bring a lawsuit against the school district we were updated regularly. And, most importantly, Sam checked on Kyle’s well-being often.

When the SPLC reached a settlement agreement with the district, it was more than we ever hoped for. I couldn’t believe it! The policy changes, training, oversight and assistance that the district will receive from the federal government are a true win.

It may have been easier to take the path of least resistance for Kyle – to get through school as quickly and easily as possible and forget about the experiences as fast as we could. But we would have been disappointed that nothing had changed. We also would not have given Kyle the opportunity to go from being a victim to a sure-minded advocate for what is right. At his young age, he has learned that sticking to what you truly believe may not be easy, but it is right and can bring much-needed change.

Thank you,

Rebecca Rooker

Marty and Mike Geldert, parents of student Brittany Geldert

Dear Southern Poverty Law Center,

Thank you for giving us a voice that has circled the globe. With your support, we have been able to stand tall knowing that by working together, we have made Anoka-Hennepin schools a better place for everyone.

Our daughter, Brittany, had been bullied and even lost her best friend to suicide – a friend who had been bullied as well. That’s why she decided to join the Southern Poverty Law Center’s effort to stop bullying at Anoka-Hennepin schools.

Today, she knows when good people take a stand against bullying, it can make a world of difference. The efforts of Brittany and the SPLC will save other students from the harassment and pain she experienced.

The settlement agreement that resulted from the SPLC’s lawsuit will help teachers confidently stop bullying within the schools – and hopefully prevent it in the future. We believe the policy changes the SPLC has brought to the schools will provide students, parents and teachers with the peace of mind they so desperately need here. No one should ever feel they are in danger at school.

We cannot thank those of you at the Southern Poverty Law Center enough; you have come into our homes, hearts, and souls. Your words, hugs, and determination have meant so much to us and all the families you have touched. We are grateful that an organization so far away from Minnesota saw our plight and came here to help us, simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The great time and effort put forth by the SPLC allows each person to understand that every person on this earth is special and worthy of love and support. This experience has shown us that there is always someone willing to help, that we are not alone when we are fighting for what’s right. It gives us great pride and hope in mankind.

In closing, we again want to thank you for all you do. Please keep doing what you do.

Sincerely,

The Gelderts

Tammy Aaberg, mother of Justin Aaberg

Dear Southern Poverty Law Center,

I am writing to express my heartfelt thanks for your leadership in bringing desperately needed change to the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota. I and other local advocates seemed to be pleading to deaf ears in the district. Now, your settlement with the district will bring new school policies, practices, and leadership that will help save countless children from being bullied and harassed.

As you know, I lost my 15-year-old son, Justin, to suicide in 2010 after he endured ruthless anti-gay bullying in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. I never want any parent to experience such pain. We must protect our children at school. I cannot stress this enough.

Bullying is not a rite of passage. It doesn’t go away if it’s ignored. And it must be taken seriously. Unfortunately, it did not appear the Anoka-Hennepin School District would ever recognize this fact.

The district had a gag policy that hampered teachers from addressing anti-gay bullying. Some students were told to simply “lay low” or “stay out of people’s way” when they reported bullying. That sort of advice doesn’t protect our children, yet instead hurts them more when they believe no one cares and/or that they deserve to be treated this way.

That is why I was so happy to see the Southern Poverty Law Center come to Minnesota and fight for the children in our schools. The lawsuit you filed on behalf of a group of bullied students includes a comprehensive, five-year plan that is bringing urgently needed change to the district. The gag policy is no more. The settlement includes critical features including training for all students and staff. Your work will result in teachers obtaining the tools they need to stop bullying. You’ve given students a greater sense of security. And you’ve given parents some peace of mind.

You’ve also raised awareness about the seriousness of anti-gay bullying, which will help students, parents, and educators across the country. Quite simply, your work in Anoka-Hennepin has provided hope for so many. My sincere wish is that students who feel hopeless in the face of bullying – who feel they have no one left to turn to – will see what the Southern Poverty Law Center did in Anoka-Hennepin and know there are adults who care about them – adults willing to fight for them. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Tammy Aaberg