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Anoka-Hennepin school district blasts Rolling Stone article [UPDATE]

In response to an article in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, officials in the Anoka-Hennepin school district issued a lengthy statement lambasting reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

"The article in Rolling Stone presents a grossly distorted portrayal of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, its schools and its communities," the statement begins.

Superintendent Dennis Carlson also sent a voicemail out to the district's staff calling the piece a "brutal and distorted attack."

The article examined the ongoing dispute over the suicides of nine students who attended schools in the district, and the role gay bullying may have played in the students' deaths. It also mentioned the lawsuit over the district's Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, and the war between conservatives and gay rights advocates to change the policy.

Although other national outlets like the New York Times and Mother Jones also covered the suicides and controversy, the Rolling Stone piece seems to have exhumed national and international outrage (The UK's Daily Mail wrote about Erdely's story yesterday).

The district posted the statement to its website yesterday afternoon, arguing that the reporter didn't speak to enough teachers, used artwork that featured students who committed suicide in other states, and that they have effectively responded to the "suicide contagion:"

The artwork that appeared with "School of Hate."
The artwork that appeared with "School of Hate."
Rolling Stone
Monday, February 6th, 2012

The article in Rolling Stone presents a grossly distorted portrayal of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, its schools and its communities. Two of the students noted in the article did not even live in Minnesota (Kylie Cowan was from Utah and Emily Nicole Trotter was from Missouri.)

The reporter could have chosen to interview countless teachers - including Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) advisors - who represent a wide spectrum of opinions. Either the reporter chose not to interview them, or, if she did speak with them, she chose not to include their voices in the story. Three or four highly critical individuals do not represent the many quality administrators and 2,700 highly professional teachers who care deeply about our students and work each day not only to educate them, but also to keep them safe.

Our schools have caring staff who support all students. That is not to say that the schools are perfect. We know that students have been bullied and that students have used inappropriate language. We take action when we get reports of bullying or students using harassing language and there are consequences. In some cases, students have been expelled for persistent bullying.

When a problem comes to our attention, we deal with it. Suicides in Anoka-Hennepin schools were rare until the 2009 -10 school year. In fact, there were no suicides of enrolled students in the three years leading up to 2009-10, when there were four. There was one in the summer of 2010, and two in 2010-11. (Rolling Stone reports nine suicides of district students; some were not enrolled in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.) There have been none this year. As soon as the second suicide occurred in fall of 2009, the district became very concerned and immediately brought in experts to provide awareness programs for students and staff with more in-depth training for specific key staff (counselors, social workers, nurses, etc.). The district also provided additional support staff to work with students at schools where the need was greatest. Concerned about the large number of students with emotional problems our staff were working with last spring, we hired a person to provide support for students and families over the summer when school staff are typically not available.

When we became aware that some teachers expressed confusion over whether or not they could intervene if they witnessed bullying of gay students, the School Board and superintendent went on record stating that staff are required to intervene in all instances of bullying or harassment. If they do not, they can be disciplined. We also provided training for staff. Most recently, the district contracted with CLIMB Theater to create a series of vignettes of typical bullying and harassment situations to show teachers how they can effectively address them. These were developed with input collected from all teachers at the beginning of the school year. CLIMB Theater actors and actresses presented these for all secondary teachers during our January staff development day. This was well received by staff.

We are also refining our procedures for documenting bullying in order to ensure consistency in following up on reports of bullying and to provide data to measure the effectiveness of our efforts.

The district is committed to ending all bullying and harassment and making our schools safe for every single student. We will continue to be vigilant and intervene with students who may be at risk of suicide.

Note: Two of the students highlighted in the magazine's artwork implied they were Anoka-Hennepin students, but in fact they were not. Kylie Cowan was from Utah and Emily Nicole Trotter was from Missouri.

More details on how we are addressing these issues are available on our website at: http://www.anoka.k12.mn.us/glbt and at: www.anoka.k12.mn.us/suicide.

It's true that Cowan and Trotter were not Anoka-Hennepin students, and the Rolling Stone artwork's caption reads: "An anti-suicide memorial poster." The poster actually came from a suicide prevention walk that was held in Blaine back in September 2011.

It's also true that students mentioned in the article were not enrolled at Anoka-Hennepin schools at the time of their death. Fifteen-year-old Justin Aaberg, for example, had recently transferred out of a district school because he was being bullied, according to his mother Tammy. She's long argued that does not absolve the district of responsibility.

Update: Contacted at her office in Philadelphia, Erdely rejects the idea that her piece was a distortion. She says she spoke with a "tremendous" number of teachers, students, and parents in the district, and had no agenda when she began her assignment.

"The district can say whatever they want about being a gay-friendly place but they still have this neutrality policy on the books," she says. "In order for this policy to change children had to suffer and children had to die. That's beyond sad."

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