March 8th, 2011
On Saturday, January 15, 2011, openly gay 18 year-old high school student Lance Lundsten died. Fellow students reported that Lance was openly gay and subjected to bullying at school and expressed their sadness and their wish that some adult had protected him. But the adults in Lance’s life had an entirely difference response.
Jefferson High School, where Lance was subjected to homophobic bullying, has no gay-straight alliance, has no inclusive anti-discrimination policy, and no acknowledgment of the existence of students like Lance or any provisions to address their need or concerns. The school superintendent Terry Quist issued a statement that not only refused to consider that bullying could have played a part, but chastised and criticized Lance’s friends for suggesting that Lance’s death may have been at his own hand and due in part to bullying he experienced while under Quist’s supervision.
We are aware that statements attributed to unidentified students have been reported by the media. However we have no information regarding the source of or any factual basis for the statements. It would be disrespectful, as well as a violation of privacy laws for us to engage in speculation regarding the cause or circumstances of Lance’s death.
But lack of “factual basis” did not limit others from engaging in a public relations effort to deny who Lance was, squelch any talk about issues that could have led to his death, and craft a pretty lie to replace the story that fellow students were presenting. Rather than allow the tragedy to be an opportunity to acknowledge that Alexandria, MN, has a culture of animus and hostility towards gay people, including their own children, those who should have protected Lance instead joined together to bully him after his death.
Lance had a strained relationship with his parents and was living with his grandparents at the time of his death. After his son killed himself, his father stepped up as spokesman for his estranged and now dead son and declared that it was a medical condition that killed the young man.
And although the coroner refuted this claim, Jon Lundsten was not interested in considering whether his son had been bullied or whether Jon’s own difficulties with his son had contributed in any way to Lance believing that life was not worth going on. So he stuck with his “enlarged heart” tale.
Besides diverting any need to talk about any icky gay stuff, this solved a more immediate problem. Declaring Lance’s death not to be a suicide allowed for his memorial and burial to be through the Catholic Church. Rev. Father Steve Binsfeld could officiate.
And Jon Lundsten had found himself an ally in his campaign of denial and deceit: Al Edenloff, the editor of the local newspaper. Over the next several days, the Echo Press, which calls itself “The Official Newspaper of Douglas County!” ran several stories on Lance’s death:
Throwing caution (and subtlety) to the wind, the first, on January 18th, was titled “18-year-old from Miltona, Minn., dies from medical condition”
According to preliminary autopsy results that were shared with the family, he died from cardiac edema, a condition caused by an enlarged heart.
There was no evidence that drugs or alcohol played any role in the death, according to a family member interviewed by the newspaper. The family was told that it would be six to eight weeks before complete toxicology results are determined.
This was a pure fabrication. But on the 21st, that story was expanded and renamed “School copes with loss of 18-year-old“. It repeated the “preliminary autopsy report” claims.
But across town, the television news was not going along with Jon Lundsten’s diversion. Instead, they ran a story on the reports of bullying, talked with the coroner’s office, interviewed a gay former student from Jefferson, and exposed the truth that Jon Lundsten, Al Edenloff, and Terry Quist wanted to keep hidden.
And fellow students who saw through all the denials began to band together, insisting that if the adults wouldn’t protect gay kids, then they would do what they could to help. Being of the social media generation, they used Facebook to not only expose the lack of concern of the adults, but also to reflect on how they could work together to address bullying.
This was certainly not the message that reflected well on the adults. Rather than have media interest in Lance’s death quickly die off as a tragic tale of a young man cut down early by a heart condition, the story began to grow as one about callous administrators who refused to take responsibility for their own actions. Even worse, the public was becoming aware that the school board’s decision not to protect gay students could lead to death.
So Edenloff went into crisis mode, writing an editorial that again denied that Lance had broken under
Alexandria’s intolerance and the lack of support in his family and his school. Seeking to keep the city and the school from being portrayed as “a backwoods little punkwood town”, he went on the attack against those students who dared to make a difference.
Calling his scold piece “Editorial – Lessons from the death of an 18-year-old”, Edenloff began with a lecture:
Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook. And don’t post things on the Internet that you’re not entirely sure of when it comes to someone else’s life.
And although by this time Edenloff had to know that Jon’s story was not being backed up by the medical examiner, he surged ahead with accusations and insinuations.
Unfortunately, whipped up by the Facebook frenzy, the distorted story of Lundsten’s death took on a life of its own. A TV station reported about the Facebook speculations and it snowballed quickly from there, getting reported by other media outlets as well – a sad case of media reporting what other media were reporting, even though it was untrue.
Today the toxicology reports came back.
Lance’s death was a suicide.
The mystery surrounding the January death of Lance Lundsten, the Miltona teen whose controversial death sparked a conversation about teen suicide across the nation, has now been revealed by the Douglas County Medical Examiner.
Dr. Mark Spanbauer confirmed Monday, March 7, that the teen’s manner of death was ruled suicide. The toxicology report from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and MEDTOX, determined the cause of death to be a mixed drug ingestion, according to Spanbauer.
“It was a mixed drug ingestion and suicide was the manner of death,” Spanbauer said.
The Echo Press decided not to cover this story.
UPDATE: At some point after we posted this commentary, the Echo Press ran a blurb noting the cause of death.
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