A week before Anoka-Hennepin school leaders are due back in court to try to mediate lawsuits still against the district, Superintendent Dennis Carlson issued an apology to those he might have offended with his comments about the district’s past student suicides.
In a one-page statement posted Thursday on the district’s website, Carlson said he meant “absolutely no disrespect” to students or parents who might have taken issue with his past remarks on the matter. Earlier, he had said the district’s investigation into seven student suicides from November 2009 to July 2010 hadn’t found a connection to anti-gay bullying.
Parents of those who died and others in the district have said at least four of the students were bullied for their real or perceived sexual orientation before their deaths.
Some have claimed the district’s Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy contributed to a hostile environment for gay students.
The lawsuits pending against the district also mention the suicides.
In his statement, Carlson addressed the possibility that bullying could be a factor in a student’s suicide.
“Although no one can ever be absolutely certain of the specific event that leads to a student’s suicide, there can be no doubt that in many situations, bullying is one of the contributing factors,” he wrote.
Carlson declined requests by the Pioneer Press to clarify his statement.
Tammy Aaberg, a district mother who lost 15-year-old her son, Justin, to suicide in
2010, said Carlson’s statement seems suspiciously timed given what might be an approaching settlement on the lawsuits.
Six former and current students who claim they were bullied for their real or perceived sexual orientation sued Minnesota’s largest district last summer. Including relief for the students, the lawsuits seek a repeal of the district’s Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy. That policy was replaced this month.
The district is scheduled to meet in mediation on the lawsuits again Thursday.
“With the policy change, and now this, I just have a feeling that things must be coming to an end on the lawsuit,” Aaberg said. “This just feels like another check on their checklist.”
With that in mind, Aaberg – who has become a crusader for gay rights in the district since the death of her son, who was gay – said the apology didn’t seem sincere.
“He does address that bullying can contribute to suicides, but he still doesn’t mention if he believes it did for the students in the district. That’s what matters,” Aaberg said.
In defense of his earlier statements, Carlson said they were made because the district’s investigation into the deaths did not uncover evidence to suggest bullying was “the main reason” for the suicides, and also to encourage others who knew or believed otherwise to come forward, his statement this week said.
That explanation fell short for Michele Johnson, who lost her 13-year-old daughter, Samantha, to suicide in 2009 after she was bullied by other students at Anoka Middle School for the Arts because they thought she was gay.
Before Samantha’s death, Johnson said, she complained to several administrators about the bullying after finding out her daughter had stopped going to volleyball practices. Nothing was done, she said.
“When Dennis Carlson made that first statement about the investigation, I was just devastated,” Johnson recalled. “There was no investigation. Nobody talked to me; nobody talked to Samantha’s closest friends….They were just trying to cover their butts.”
She said she believes similar intentions prompted his latest statement.
“I feel like he is just covering his tracks because they are so exposed right now with the lawsuit stuff going on,” Johnson said. “I do believe he probably feels bad, but that doesn’t change what he said in the first place….It doesn’t change what happened.”
Carlson’s statement Thursday said he has “learned a lot in this process, particularly from talking to some of the mothers of our students who have died. If my December 2010 statement was perceived as dismissive or insensitive to victims of bullying or suicide, I deeply and sincerely apologize. I absolutely meant no disrespect to any of our students and the adults who care about them and love them.”
Anoka-Hennepin board member Scott Wenzel said neither of the lawsuits seeks a district apology for previous statements made about the suicides.
As far as his own interpretation of the reasons the superintendent made the latest remarks, Wenzel said he didn’t know.
“I keep telling everyone we need to keep moving forward and continue focusing on the progress we’re making,” he said.
Board Chairman Tom Heidemann did not return a call for comment on the matter Friday.
A representative for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of the two organizations representing the students suing the district, said the groups could not comment because of the mediation.
Sarah Horner can be reached at 651-228-5539. Follow her at twitter.com/hornsarah.