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Posts for March, 2012

Verdicts Returned in Rutgers Spycam Suicide Case

Jim Burroway

March 16th, 2012

Dharun Ravi, 20, the Rutgers University student who was accused of setting up a spy-cam and inviting friends to watch his roommate, Tyler Clementi, share intimate moments with another man, was found guilty today of invasion privacy, but was found not guilty on most of the charges of bias intimidation. He was also found guilty on charges of witness tampering, tampering with evidence, and hindering prosecution. He faces up to ten years in prison, and he could be deported to his native India, even though he has been a legal resident in the U.S. since he was a very young child.

Clementi commited suicide in September, 2010 by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge, following two incidents in which Ravi set up a spycam in the students’ dorm room while Clementi was alone with another man. Clementi discovered Ravi’s Tweets inviting fellow student to watch. 

The jury returned its verdicts shortly before noon EDT today after three days of deliberation in a trial that lasted nearly four weeks.

UPDATE: Sentencing has been set for May 21. He will remain free until then.

Anoka-Hennepin School District Agrees To Anti-Bullying Settlement

Jim Burroway

March 6th, 2012

A school district outside of Minneapolis agreed last night to a settlement in which the district will implement specific anti-bullying measures to address a rash of suicides at the school district over the past few year. In a 5-1 vote, the Anoka-Hennepin School District agreed to settle a Justice Department civil rights investigation and a lawsuit filed by six former and current students.

The settlement creates a five year partnership between the school district, the Justice Department and the Department of Education to establish new policies and programs to address school bullying generally and anti-LGBT bullying in particular. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the settlement will:

  • Retain a consultant on sex-based harassment to review its policies and procedures.
  • Develop and implement a plan for preventing and addressing sex-based harassment of students in middle and high school.
  • Enhance training of staff and students on the issue.
  • Retain a mental health consultant to address needs of students victimized by harassment.

“This partnership will strengthen the support that the district provides to all students, including students who are gay or perceived to be gay,” said school board Chairman Tom Heidemann. He added that the consent decree builds upon the work the district already has done to step up its anti-bullying efforts, including staff training.

The settlement comes after more than a year of controversy in which the school board initially denied there was a problem despite nine suicides taking place over the previous two years. Not only that, but the board also instituted a policy backed by Focus On the Family and a local conservative parents group requiring teachers to remain “neutral” in any discussions on sexual orientation, a policy which effectively prevented teachers from adequately addressing anti-gay bullying in particular. At one point, the Parents Action League demanded that ex-gay therapy be presented to students as a means of making what they thought the real problem was — the existence of gay kids — go away.

The lone dissenter in last night’s vote, school board member Kathy Tingelstad, resigned after casting her no vote.

Another Teen Takes His Life

Jim Burroway

December 8th, 2011

The bullying got so bad, friends say, that Jacob Rogers dropped out at Cheatham County Central  High School in Ashland City, Tennessee, just a few miles northwest of Nashville. He took his own life Wednesday:

“He started coming home his senior year saying ‘I don’t want to go back. Everyone is so mean. They call me a f****, they call me gay, a queer,’” friend Kaelynn Mooningham said.

Kaelynn said her friend Jacob felt ignored.

“Jacob told me no one was helping him. He constantly was going to guidance,” she said.

The school says they were only aware of one bullying incident, and said they intervened. But the fact that Jacob quit going to school around Thanksgiving should have been a red flag. Jacob’s grandmother, who was his primary guardian, found some notes Jacob let behind which included passwords to his email and phone to allow investigators to determine why he killed himself.

For more information on suicide prevention, research and help-seeking resources, see the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). If you or someone you know needs help, see The Trevor Project’s web site or call the Trevor Lifeline: 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386).

“It Gets Better” Needs Some Muscle Behind It

Jim Burroway

October 27th, 2011

Canadian comedian and commentator Rick Mercer responds to Jamie Hubley’s suicide:

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Dan Savage agrees:

So: yes to that assembly, yes to confronting the kids who abused Jamie Hubley. Since the beginning of the project I’ve called for bullies to be arrested and prosecuted. If it’s a crime for a 16-year-old kid to beat up a little old lady in a shopping mall, it’s a crime for for a 16-year-old kid to beat up queer kid in a high school. Parents whose kids are being assaulted need to go to the police first, school administrators second.

Eleven or Thirteen More Dead Gay Kids Ought To Do It

Jim Burroway

October 26th, 2011

Click to enlarge

That’s what a Joplin, MO, high school math teacher– or someone posing as him – posted on the Facebook wall of a former student in a debate over fifteen-year-old Jamie Hubley’s suicide. According to the Joplin Globe:

A Facebook comment replying to the (Josh) Gonzalez post that appeared under (Jim) Whitney’s name stated: “Moral of the story: Don’t be gay.”

That comment provoked reaction and criticism from others, including this: “How many more kids have to kill themselves before everyone realizes that this is an actual issue?”

That was followed by another comment attributed to Whitney’s account that read: “11-13 ought to do it.”

The Joplin Board of Education is investigating. Whitney apologized in an email:

I do not condone bullying or harassment of any kind and I am very aware and saddened by the negative impact this type of behavior creates. I regret that the posts appeared on Facebook. They do not reflect my personal views and I apologize for any and all offenses caused by the comment.

Whitney wouldn’t explain to reporters how comments which don’t reflect his personal views ended up under his profile. But Gonzales said that Whitney told him later that Whitney’s account had been hacked. Gonzales said the comments appeared out of character for Whitney, which leads him to believe Whitney’s claim of innocence.  “The part that got me really fired up was the ‘11-13 might do it,’” Gonzalez said “At that point I was like, ‘OK, that can’t be him.’”

Depression, Bullying Combine For Another Suicide

Jim Burroway

October 17th, 2011

Fifteen-year-old Jamie Hubley, of Ottawa, Ont., killed himself this weekend after struggling with depression and bullying. Jamie was reportedly the only openly gay student at his school, and he wrote on his blog about the difficulties of being gay and with his struggles with depression:

In a post three weeks ago, he said he was depressed, that medications he was taking weren’t working, and that being gay in high school was so hard — a thousand times harder in real life than on the popular television show, Glee, which he loved.

“I hate being the only open gay guy in my school … It f—ing sucks, I really want to end it,” he wrote.

The blog postings are interspersed with angst-filled quotes and startling images of self-harm — gathered from all over the web, as well as other pictures of celebrities, clothing and men kissing passionately.

Last Friday, he posted his final message:

He thanked his family and his friends, but wrote that he just couldn’t take it anymore.

“Im tired of life really. Its so hard, Im sorry, I cant take it anymore.

“Its just too hard,” he wrote, later referencing It Gets Better, a popular online campaign in which millions of people have posted heartfelt video messages directed at young people struggling with their sexuality and acceptance in the world.

“I dont want to wait 3 more years, this hurts too much. How do you even know It will get better? Its not.”

This suicide comes just three weeks after fourteen-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself. Suicide prevention experts, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Trevor Project, worry that high-profile suicides could trigger what’s known as a “suicide contagion.”  It should be noted that Hubley didn’t reference Rodemeyer in any of his posts, and so it’s not clear that this is the case here. But it should also be noted that there were other, clear warning signs in his posts — particularly with the images of self-harm. Huber’s left arm was already scarred from prior episodes of self-cutting. The blog posts over the past several weeks indicate that he has been thinking about this for quite a while.

Suicide is not the natural end result to bullying. But it does leave vulnerable kids who are already struggling with depression with just one more thing to cope with. Some can’t, and they often can’t or won’t directly reach out for help. Telling gay kids that “It Gets Better” is a great start for those who aren’t struggling with mental illness. But for the others, more is needed.  For more information on general suicide prevention, research and help-seeking resources, see the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). If you or someone you know needs help, see The Trevor Project’s web site or call the Trevor Lifeline: 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386).

Jamey’s Bullies Celebrate His Death

Jim Burroway

September 28th, 2011

The parents of Jamey Rodemeyer, the Buffalo-area teen who killed himself following constant bullying, told NBC’s Today that the bullying is still going on even after his death. This time, they’re being directed toward Jamey’s sister:

The parents of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who was found dead at their home on Sept. 18, indicated in an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Ann Curry on Tuesday that their daughter endured further taunts at a school function immediately after Jamey’s wake. At a homecoming dance she attended shortly after her brother’s death, a potentially poignant moment turned ugly after a song by Lady Gaga, Jamey’s favorite artist, who recently dedicated a song at a concert in his memory.

“She was having a great time, and all of a sudden a Lady Gaga song came on, and they all started chanting for Jamey, all of his friends,’’ Jamey’s mother, Tracy, told Curry. “Then the bullies that put him into this situation started chanting, ‘You’re better off dead!’ and ‘We’re glad you’re dead!’ and things like that.

“My daughter came home all upset. It was supposed to be a time for her to grieve and have fun with her friends, and it turned into bullying even after he’s gone.’’

“I can’t grasp it in my mind,’’ said Tim Rodemeyer, Jamey’s father. “ I don’t know why anyone would do that. They have no heart, that’s basically what it comes down to.’’

Jamey’s parents said that he often spoke openly about the bullying at Heim Middle School, but he became more withdrawn at the start of his freshman year in high school.  His parents discovered an online post after his death, reading, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so that people will listen to me?’’

Amherst police are investigating whether Jeremy was a victim of harassment or hate crimes before his suicide.

Beware The Heroes We Create

Jim Burroway

September 27th, 2011

First, let me stipulate one thing: Lady Gaga’s advocacy on all manner of LGBT-related topics are powerful and heartfelt. While some might see her advocacy as just another means of self-promotion, I just don’t see it that way. And I don’t even see her advocacy as being “loyal to her fan base,” a poor excuse for advocacy if I ever heard one. It’s another way of saying an entertainer simply knows where his or her bread is buttered. I think Lady Gaga would be a strong advocate regardless of what her “fan base” may be. Her career is built upon many things, including image and self-promotion, but her advocacy seems, to me at least, to be genuine and passionate.

And yet, as I watch this video of her performing “Hair” and dedicating it to Jamey Rodemeyer at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, I can’t help but thinking that, in some small way, Jamey achieved in death something he never had in life: a song dedicated to him from the star performer who he described as a huge inspiration to him. If he were alive — and I’m assuming he was like most star-struck teens who worshiped their musical idols — his thrill at her mentioning his name before thousands of adoring fans would have been unmeasurable. But he’s not alive. He killed himself last week after enduring yet more bullying, even after he himself had made his own “It Gets Better” video last spring.

I don’t think there is a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person alive who hasn’t experienced bullying, peer rejection and torment. For some of us, that experience has been indescribably brutal. But the fact that we are alive is proof that suicide is not a natural response to bullying. If it were, we’d all have killed ourselves. For some, however, there is at least one other ingredient in the mix somehow which leads then to kill themselves while others press on. Those ingredients vary from individual to individual, but suicide research shows that one common denominator is often depression, which can express itself in many ways. It brings an extra vulnerability for teens to carry, a vulnerability which makes it extraordinarily difficult to predict the specific incident which could trigger the next suicide.

As I watch this video, I can’t help but recall moments of darkness and despair in my own life when I imagined the huge wave of grief that would be unleashed by my own funeral. I dreamed of my tormenters’ lives forever ruined by their guilt for having pushed me over the edge. Everyone else would know who they were, and they would shun them the way I was shunned. Who’s sorry now, huh?

Who among us haven’t imagined something like this for themselves? The wailing and rending of clothing as people finally realized that their cruelty and neglect would haunt them for the rest of their days, the outpouring of love in death that we felt was withheld from us in life, and, in the scene’s dénouement, a song in our honor because even the greatest pop hero (in my version, it was either Bobby Sherman or, later, Cher ) would know our names.

I needn’t point out the obvious that I never did try to make my fantasy a reality. My self-esteem was so low that I feared that I was too incompetent to actually kill myself and I’d end up a life-long vegetable. I guess you could say my depression was so deep it actually saved me. But we do know the phenomenon of copy-cat suicides, where the aftermath of one person’s death may begin to look pretty good to others who are watching. Which is what makes watching this video for me so horrifying. Jamey talked about his love of Lady Gaga in his “It Gets Better” video. But to most of us watching that video, we would naturally come to the conclusion that it didn’t get better. And, for most of us, it will be obvious that with Jamey gone, it will truly never get better for him on this earth because he’s not here on it.

But is it so obvious to other Lady Gaga fans? To other teenage, bullied, depressed, and hopeless Lady Gaga fans? A Lady Gaga fan who would kill for that kind of a shout-out, even if it is a posthumous one? The LGBT Movement Advancement Project, a joint effort of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, GLSEN, GLAAD and others, have a very informative 12-point guide for talking about suicide (PDF: 642KB/4 pages). Points 7 and 8 are particularly relevant here:

7. DON’T normalize suicide by presenting it as the logical consequence of the kinds of bullying, rejection, discrimination and exclusion that LGBT people often experience. Presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy LGBT person—or drawing a direct, causal link between suicide and the bullying or discrimination that LGBT people often face—can encourage at-risk individuals to identify with the victim (or the victim’s life circumstances) and increase risk of suicidal behavior.

8. DON’T idealize suicide victims or create an aura of celebrity around them. Research shows that idealizing people who have died by suicide may encourage others to identify with the victim or seek to emulate them.

As I look through the list, I see several important points which show that there have been times when BTB did not do such a good job in talking about teen suicide in the past. I do know that we have broken some of the recommendations in this list. Our mistakes were honest ones, but we can ill-afford to keep making them. This isn’t to say that we cannot talk about suicide or report future cases in which teens take their own lives. Not talking about suicide won’t make it go away, and not talking about bullying won’t make things better for gay teens. But there are things we all can do to better respond to our collective grief and anguish when the spark of yet another young life flames out in self-destruction, particularly when we can easily identify with the pain that led to those final moments.

We don’t know what final spark led Jamey Rodemeyer to kill himself. And chances are we won’t know the actual trigger for the next person who reaches that moment of despair where the only option they believe they have is to follow in Jamey’s footsteps. But we do know that we can chose to honor Jame’s life in a way which can be helpful to other teens who might be at a similar point of hopelessness in their lives. If Jamey’s death is to mean anything, it must be found in the commitment to ensure that people like him can find the help that they need when and where they need it, and to surround them with supportive adults to help them — whether those adults are inside their families or outside; in the schools or off school property. Let Jamey’s death be not an occasion for another poignant music video, but a call to action to make sure every teen knows that there is someone they can turn to. And to make sure that when they need to turn to someone, there really is someone there to help.

For more information on general suicide prevention, research and help-seeking resources, see the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). If you or someone you know needs help, see The Trevor Project’s web site or call the Trevor Lifeline: 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386).

Buffalo Teen Latest Suicide Following Anti-Gay Bullying

Jim Burroway

September 21st, 2011

Fourteen-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer posted an “It Gets Better” video last May describing his struggles with the constant bullying he experienced at school. He expressed confidence at that time that his family and friends could carry him through the difficulties. But when he started  a new school year as a high school freshman, the bullying got worse. It turns out that that support wasn’t enough:

Soon after coming home from a family camping trip, Jamey was found dead Sunday. His parents say he was always under pressure because of struggles with his sexuality.

Jamey’s mother Tracy Rodemeyer said, “So he hung around with the girls a lot, so then the teasing started happening like ‘Oh you’re such a girl or you’re gay or whatever and that bothered him for many years.”

Now, they want to carry in his message in hopes of preventing another tragedy like this one.

Jamey’s father Tim Rodemeyer said, “To the kids who are bullying they have to realize that words are very powerful and what you think is just fun and games isn’t to some people, and you are destroying a lot of lives.”

Colbert Reports “It Gets Better”

Jim Burroway

July 21st, 2011

Steven Colbert slowly sheds his character to tell teens that “it gets better”:

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Plea Deal Reached In Tyler Clementi Case

Jim Burroway

May 7th, 2011
Dharun Ravi (left), and Molly Wei (right)

Dharun Ravi (left), and Molly Wei (right)

Molly Wei appeared in court Friday to request admittance into a pretrial probationary program that could lead to the dismissal of all charges against her in exchange for her testimony against Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers student who reportedly broadcast a live video feed of Tyler Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room. That incident, along with another attempt a few days later, led to Clementi’s suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

As part of the plea deal, Wei agreed to counseling and to do 300 hours of community service, in addition to testifying against Ravi. According to prosecutors, Ravi and Wei watched Clementi through a video cam from Wei’s laptop computer in her dorm room.

Clementi’s parents agreed to the plea arrangement. According to Joe Clementi, Tyler’s father, her actions were “substantially different in their nature and their extent than the actions of Tyler’s former roommate.”If Wei completes the three year program, then two counts of invasion of privacy will be dismissed. Otherwise, she faces trial and up to three years’ imprisonment.

Two weeks ago, Ravi was charged with fifteen felony count, including invasion of privacy and attempted invasion of privacy, bias crimes, tampering with evidence and witness tampering. He faces up to ten years in prison.

Tyler Clementi

When Clementi committed suicide last September, his death was among a rash of suicides that sparked a national conversation about the difficulties LGBT youth experience. That attention became the genesis for the It Gets Better project, in which people all over the world upload videos of encouragement for young people who face bullying, taunts, and other difficulties with their peers and/or families. There is also a companion book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, which includes essays  from celebrities, ordinary people and teens who have posted videos of encouragement, as well as additional contributors who have not posted videos to the site. Kindle and audiobook editions are also available.

Tyler Clementi’s Roommate Earns 15 Indictments

Jim Burroway

April 20th, 2011

A New Jersey prosecutor’s office announced today that a 15-count indictment has been handed down against Dharun Ravi, the Rutger’s university roommate of Tyler Clementi, who secretly distributed a live video on the internet of Clementi having an intimate encounter with another man just days before Clementi committed suicide.

The charges against Ravi include two counts each of invasion of privacy and attempted invasion of privacy, two counts of second-degree bias crimes and two counts of third degree bias crimes, three counts each of tampering with evidence and hindering his own apprehension, and a single count of witness tampering.

Another student, Molly Wei, was also charged with invasion of privacy, but her case has not yet been presented to the grand jury. Charges against her are pending and the case remains active.

Tyler Clementi’s suicide garnered nearly immediate national attention. A rash of suicides taking place at that same time became the impetus behind the It Gets Better project and other efforts to implement anti-bullying programs in schools around the country. The It Gets Better project, in which ordinary people are encouraged to upload videos reaching out to LGBT youth to encourage them to hang in there because “it gets better,”  has announced a new hardcover book by project co-founders Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller. The book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, collects essays  from celebrities, ordinary people and teens who have posted videos of encouragement, as well as additional contributors who have not posted videos to the site. Kindle and audiobook editions are also available.

Do Teens Commit Suicide More In Politically Conservative Areas?

Jim Burroway

April 18th, 2011

That’s the conclusion drawn by Columbia University psychologist Mark Hatzenbuehler in a study to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Pediatrics. I haven’t seen the study myself, but based on news reports and the meager information provided in the study’s abstract, I think caution is in order.

Using data drawn from an Oregon survey, Hatzenbuehler created an social environment index based on (1) the proportion of same-sex couples, (2) the proportion of registered Democrats, (3) the presence of gay-straight alliances in schools, and (4) school policies (nondiscrimination and anti-bullying) that specifically protected lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. Based on that cross-tabulation, he concluded that not only were LGBT students about five times more likely to attempt suicide in the previous twelve months, but that LGBT students were “20% greater in unsupportive environments compared to supportive environments.”

That conclusion passes the gut check, but one can be misled by one’s gut. My first question is this: to what extent does the study control for rural vs. urban environments? That seems like a logical questions, and it immediately leapt to mind in discovering that the data was based on an Oregon survey. Oregon’s urban areas are almost exclusively Democratic while its more rural areas are more uniformly conservative. If this study had taken place in, say, Arizona, where there is a significant mix of urban areas that are wildly conservative (Phoenix, Mesa, Gilbert), and other urban areas which trend Democratic (Tucson, Flagstaff), the result may show something very different. California’s mix of liberal and conservative urban and rural areas would also provide fertile ground to study this further.

Until we know more about this study, I believe caution would be well advised. I hope to obtain a copy of the study soon.

Alexandria’s Echo Press publishes spin on Lundsten’s toxicology report

Timothy Kincaid

March 9th, 2011

Yesterday television media in Alexandria, MN, followed up on their coverage of the local anti-gay bullying problem. They confirmed the claims of anti-bullying advocates in reporting that toxicology reports reveal that, indeed, Lance Lundsten’s death was due to suicide. This contradicted the position taken by the local newspaper which had been insisting that Lundsten had died due to a medical condition.

As of late afternoon yesterday, the Echo Press had made no mention of the toxicology results. At some point after Box Turtle Bulletin criticized them for their silence on the issue, the following blub appeared on their website:

18-year-old’s death in Miltona determined to be suicide
Toxicology reports indicate that 18-year-old Lance Lundsten of Miltona was a victim of suicide.

Lundsten, a senior at Jefferson High School, died on January 15 at his home.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office investigated the death and initially described it as a medical call/sudden death.

Family members said they were initially told that a preliminary autopsy indicated that Lundsten had cardiac edema, a medical condition caused by an enlarged heart. The family was told it would be six to eight weeks before complete toxicology results could be determined.

Those results are back now and they show “a mixed drug ingestion” led to the death and that the manner of death was suicide, according to Douglas County Medical Examiner Dr. Mark Spanbauer.

Not much there… but the language included – and excluded – is worth noting as an example of a newspaper deliberately seeking to deceive its readers.

The Echo Press carefully strung together a few sentences, each of which may be factual but when taken together tell a false tale. And all of it is designed to cover the butt of publisher Al Edenloff.

First, yes it was a “medical call/sudden death.” This is a pretty broad description and could cover anything.

But the Echo Press included this terminology for a very specific reason: to imply validation for their campaign to deny the true cause of Lundsten’s death. Lookie there, the sheriff used the word “medical” so we’re justified in insisting that the cause of his death was “cardiac edema, a condition caused by an enlarged heart.”

Then Edenloff defends his scolding editorial and incorrect reporting by shifting blame to fourth-party information. “Family members said they were initially told…”

To those who have not followed the drama, this looks to be some little story of the medical examiner discovering that the cause of death wasn’t what he thought after all. To the shock of everyone, this was a suicide. Whoda thunk it?

But what happened is quite something else. A false story was spread to cover the truth behind Lundsten’s death and the motivation appears to be to cover up the community’s entrenched anti-gay bias. And Echo Press was the main culprit in the propagation of this story.

Mr. Edenloff was angered that “anti-bullying groups” were covering the story in ways that reflecting badly on the city and the school. He didn’t like that Senator Al Franken had used the story to highlight the need for anti-bullying legislation.

And I suspect that he may have truly believed his happy fairly tale that swept everything under the rug, caused no reason to question the attitude that Alexandria and Jefferson High have towards gay kids, and implicated no one in the death of a high school student. Or he chose to believe it.

But he was wrong. And rather than admit this and apologize to those whom he chastised and criticized, he’s trying to act as though the reporting and editorializing of the Echo Press was reasonable. It was not.

Oh, it’s possible that Edenloff will run an editorial “explaining” his actions. And while I can hope that some humility may creep in, I suspect it will ignore the story behind the story: that Alexandria’s gay youth are going though torment while its adults blithely traipse along refusing to see or do anything about it.

I doubt that Edenloff will suddenly join those who are calling for protection for students, like Lance, who are bullied at Jefferson High. He has not yet been willing even to acknowledge that Lance was reportedly bullied, or even that he was gay. Perhaps he thinks that this would smear Lance’s reputation.

In January, the Echo Press titled its editorial “Lessons from the death of an 18-year-old” and set out to lecture on what others could learn. But it’s time for Edenloff to look at the situation and see what lessons are there for him.

He would do well to ask himself what, exactly, is the role of a newspaper in today’s instant media society. While newsprint once could serve as community scold and publisher of opinion, that role has now been taken over by blogs and social media.

The real value of newspaper media is that unlike instant media they – at least in theory – publish hard facts. They do background and talk to source and try and see a bigger picture. Newspaper reporting is presumed to be fact-checked and accurate. This is what differentiates them from much of the blogosphere.

But what value is a newspaper that prints known falsehoods rather than facts? If the Echo Press has no more accuracy than the most agenda-driven and biased of bloggers, then it no longer has any value or purpose.

Obamas Speak Out Against Bullying

Jim Burroway

March 9th, 2011
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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle will host an anti-bullying conference at the Whte House tomorrow which will be streamed live at WhiteHouse.gov. The conference includes teachers, students, and community leaders, and will include online live chats. In preparation for the conference, the President and First Lady recorded this Facebook message.

You can submit questions here, and you can RSVP for a “Facebook live” chat here. There’s also more information at StopBullying.gov.

Last October, President Obama released a video for the “It Gets Better” campaign, aimed at stemming the epidemic of youth suicides brought on by bullying.

Alexandria’s Echo Press ignores Lundsten’s toxicology report

Timothy Kincaid

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.

KSAX

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.

Denial over Lance Lundsten’s death

Timothy Kincaid

January 25th, 2011

Suicide can devastate a family, especially when the one who takes their life is a youth with great potential. Some of those left behind wonder what they could have done differently, what they contributed.

But it is not unusual for other family members to find peace by adopting a position of denial and looking for any other possible explanation, a scenario in which they can be absolved of their self-imposed guilt. This might be by finding another culprit to blame (“her bad-influence friends”) or by simply pretending that the suicide never happened (“that was an accidental overdose”).

So I did not find it surprising that Lance Lundsten’s father had declared that Lundsten had not ended his own life but rather had died due a coronary edema brought on by an enlarged heart. According to the coroner this was simply not true, but undoubtedly the discovery of this incidental medical condition allowed Lance’s father to concoct an alternate reality in which there was no blame or shame or regret.

But denial is not healthy, and there are times when it is appropriate to ask oneself, “Did I contribute to this, should I change?” And in the story of Lance Lundsten, I am finding more than a few, family and community alike, who are unwilling – or afraid – to look at themselves too closely to see what part they might have played in Lance’s death.

The coroner’s toxicology reports are not in and at this point we simply do not know the cause of Lance’s death. And even if suicide is determined to be the cause, it is not possible to identify which specific pressures were felt the greatest or what incidents contributed most to his state of mind. But we can readily identify some facts of Lance’s life that would be troublesome to most teens.

Lance’s family life was not without complication. Although his father has asserted his role as family spokesman, Lance actually lived with his grandparents and comments he made on his Facebook page suggest that his relationship with his parents was strained. Further, this tension appears to be due, at least in part, to religious differences, likely due to his sexual orientation.

We also know that the administration at Jefferson High School is not supportive of gay students. The school policies do not ban anti-gay discrimination or harassment, and fellow gay student Caleb Shafer reports that the school would not protect him from bullies. It is telling that District 206 Superintendent Terry Quist released a statement about Lance’s death that went out of its way to avoid any mention of Lundsten’s sexual orientation or bullying of any kind and suggested that the “respectful” way to “honor Lance’s memory” would be to ignore all of the concerns his friends have raised.

But the denial and refusal to consider Lance as who he was, rather than the person they wish he was, extends beyond his parents and his school. The community in Alexandria seems determined not to address whether their gay kids are being tormented and refuse to see Lance’s death as a means of introducing that discussion.

The local newspaper, aptly named the Echo, went so far as to run an editorial in which they repeated the father’s assertions, even though the coroner had disputed them, and chastised Lance’s classmates and the local TV news for suggesting otherwise. (Echo)

Before people started gossiping and drawing conclusions on the Internet, they should have stopped and considered the family. They should have asked themselves if they would have liked the same kind of unsubstantiated rumors swirling around about someone in their own family.

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.

Some Jefferson High School students threatened a walk out, believing the school wasn’t taking the bullying issue seriously enough.

Anti-bullying groups were quick to pick up on the death, spreading the story further. U.S. Senator Al Franken called attention to the incident to drum up support for anti-bullying legislation. Images of Lundsten connected to headlines of bullying and suicide popped up all over the Internet – even on a website in France.

It shouldn’t have happened this way.

Although the editorial never once uses the word gay or mentions that Lance publicly identified as such, it isn’t too hard to figure out who the Echo means by “anti-bullying groups” that didn’t “consider the family.” And they clearly feel betrayed and angry at KSAX for daring to suggest that perhaps something is amiss in Alexandria. (CityPages)

It’s true that Lundsten’s death has not yet been ruled a suicide–toxicology test results aren’t expected back for more than a month. But the Echo Press has been insisting all week that Lundsten’s death wasn’t a suicide, without even bothering to pick up the phone and call the medical examiner. Isn’t that rush to judgment exactly what they’re accusing Lundsten’s classmates of doing on Facebook?

“Absolutely not,” Edenloff told City Pages today. “I’d much rather report what a family member said than a bunch of kids who didn’t even know what he was all about.”

Edenloff says the coverage by KSAX and the internet response to the story have painted Jefferson High School and the city of Alexandria unfairly.

“The school and the city have been portrayed as really backwards on this,” Edenloff says. “The idea that we’re a backwoods little punkwood town that doesn’t know how to deal with these issues is totally false.”

Suicide can devastate a community, especially when the one who takes their life is a youth with great potential. Some of those left behind wonder what they could have done differently, what they contributed.

Others, like Lance’s father, the administration of Lance’s school, and the local newspaper have adopted a position of denial. They don’t want to know whether they played a part. They would rather tell themselves pretty stories than consider what they could have done differently, what they contributed, or how they could change.

Lance Lundsten update

Timothy Kincaid

January 20th, 2011

More information is coming out about Lance Lundsten’s death, and some of it is contradictory. As is sometimes the case in these situations, answers are not easy.

Lance’s father, understandably, took an autopsy finding and clung to the hope that Lance’s death was natural (Herald)

Lance’s father called KSAX and said he received a call from the coroner saying Lance had an enlarged heart and died of a coronary edema. He said he believed it was not a suicide.

He also believed there were no signs of drugs or alcohol in his son’s system, but the toxicology report has not been finished according the medical examiner’s office.

However, the coroner has said that this was not the cause. (KSAX)

The preliminary findings in the autopsy of 18-year-old Lance Lundsten showed the teen did not die from an enlarged heart, according to Douglas County Medical Examiner Dr. Mark Spanbauer.

The teen’s heart was slightly enlarged, but that finding was a secondary finding to an undetermined cause, according to Spanbauer.

Lance’s will be determined by the medical examiner after the autopsy process and laboratory testing is complete, a process that may take weeks.

Meanwhile, another gay kid has gone on record about the atmosphere at Jefferson. (KSAX)

The death of 18-year-old Jefferson High School student Lance Lundsten caused several to speak out about bullying in Greater Minnesota schools. Nineteen-year-old Caleb Shafer said he was bullied from middle school through high school.

“I was suicidal,” Shafer said. “I was very depressed … I didn’t want to talk to anyone … I would cry myself to sleep.”

Shafer attended Jefferson High School at the same time Lundsten did.

The school district has responded – predictably – by pretending that the situation didn’t happen and that there is no bullying going on at all. (KSAX)

At times like this, people are trying to make sense of the loss. 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. Today, and in the days ahead, we need to pull together and honor Lance’s memory.

Missing from the four paragraph letter were the words “gay” and “bullying” and “suicide” and “problem” and “policy” and “correct” and ” avoid.” Nope. Nothing to see here, folks, move on along.

But they are going to offer counseling for those students who are having “a tough day.”

Although this story hasn’t, as best we can tell, seemed to much impact the administration at Jefferson other than perhaps some minor inconvenience, it has changed the perspective of one student. Alex Sonju, in his words:

This is the Truth

As most of you know, a kid in my school commited suicide due to bullying him about his sexual preferance.

I never thought it would be a reality. I’ve heard about suicide, and thought to myself “Wow, that’s horrible”, then went on with my normal day. But when someone in my own town, in my own school does it, it really changes my thinking.(found out it’s a heart condition, but i still feel exactly the same on this issue) It makes me think of how just a few words can change so many lives. To anyone I’ve ever said anything mean about, I truely am sorry. I don’t care if it was as a joke, or if I was serious. We’re all guilty of saying mean things. Joking or not. Because in turn, those jokes, cause death.

Now a days, bullying isnt the typical “give me your lunch money” or getting beat up at recess. Today’s bullying is much different. I know what it’s like to hear mean things. I’ve been called gay before, I’ve been called fat, I’ve been laughed at, I’ve been talked about. And to all those people that have done this to me, I forgive you. I hope with Lance’s story, it serves as a wake up call to everyone. Your friends might find it hilarious, you might get a couple high fives from them, but what are they gonna be doing when you tell them “I’m the reason someone killed themself! High five anyone?” No.

I pray to God that Jefferson will change from this. I hope that teachers won’t just sit by and stare anymore. I hope more kids will stand up. I know I will. I’ll do it for you Lance. I don’t care if I don’t like the kid they’re making fun of, or if I love them. I don’t care if they’re black or white. I don’t care if they’re gay or straight. I won’t care. I know it will take alot of strength, but I’d rather stand up for someone, then to see them go. And I hope you do the same.

Most of the time though, when you do confront a bully, they usually say “I was joking”. Yeah, well, sorry to say this, but suicide isn’t a joke. Either is any form of self harm. In fact, it’s the opposite of a joke. Some people say that self harm is a way to attract attention… well, it kind of is. It’s like they’re trying to tell people “look what your doing to me”. And it’s also trying to tell everyone else “I need help”. Most of the time, all they need is someone to talk to, someone to have trust in. I’ve been at some low points in life. I’ve been made fun of. I know what it’s like. The thing that would have helped me the most is easily someone to talk to. Just someone that will say “hey, how are you”. Just by talking to that one person, it shows that you care. So, that’s why if anyone, and I mean anyone, want’s to talk, about anything at all, PLEASE talk to me. I’d love to talk to you. I know I might not seem like the person that would be able to hold a serious conversation, but believe me, I can have deep heart to heart talks. If you ever want to talk, feel free to talk to me on chat, or message me.

Well, I could go on for hours, but I think I would bore you guys. I’m just trying to get across my point that bullying is serious, and if you guys ever need to talk, I am ALWAYS here for you. You guys are all loved, and your all amazing people, no matter what anyone says.

It’s really all so predictable. At some point school administrators have to act or accept the blame for their failure to do so.

Timothy Kincaid

January 17th, 2011

We’ve all seen dating ads that say, “Looking for White, Asian, Hispanic or Middle Eastern.” Those ads don’t need to tell you who they aren’t looking for, when you read the list you know exactly what is meant. You know who need not apply, who isn’t “their type”.

And when I hear the list of who is protected from harassment and discrimination and it runs merrily on with a list of everyone but the LGBT community, I know what that means as well. No one is fooled. Especially the kids.

This is from the student/parent handbook for Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Minnesota:

E. Verbal Assaults: Verbal assaults are abusive, threatening, profane, or obscene language, oral or written, toward a staff member or another student. This includes, but is not limited to, conduct which degrades people because of their race, sex, religion, ethnic background, physical or mental handicaps.

And “the majority of violations” of policy “that occur in the schools” include:

Assaults that are abusive, threatening, profane, or obscene whether oral, visual or written, toward a staff member or another student. This includes, but is not limited to, conduct which degrades people because of their race, sex, religion, ethnic background, physical or
mental handicaps.

If it’s religious, racial or sexual assault, then the Human Rights Officer is notified. But if it’s sexual orientation or gender identity then I guess no one cares at all. Or they certainly didn’t care enough to list it in their handbook.

On Saturday Jefferson High School Student Lance Lundsten committed suicide. (Dallas Voice)

According to his Facebook page, Lundsten was openly gay. On a Facebook memorial page in Lundsten’s honor, friends said that Lundsten had been bullied at school for his sexual orientation. Some students who knew Lundsten believed the bullying may have led to his suicide.

Look, this isn’t an isolated incident. In fact, I’m sick of writing this story. Over and over, changing the names but little else.

And again and again it’s the same pattern: a school that couldn’t care less, mean kids picking on the gay kid, frustrated parents and friends. And it’s not like we don’t already know what happens when you stick some gay kid in a tiny town where he or she is bullied and no one responds.

And they are all sooo surprised, sooo convinced that everything was just hunky-dory. As Principle Chad Duwenhoegger says on the school website:

We are very proud of our students. We have several leadership teams that provide a voice and an ability to create a culture and climate where all students feel comfortable and connected. Our students have taken ownership of Jefferson and strive to create an environment that is welcoming to anyone who enters our building.

I am so very sick of school administrators who do nothing or who assume that “it won’t happen here”, not with their lovely little good straight white Christian students in middle-America.

Well I have a message to the Principle Chads out there: Yes, it happens here. Right here where you made no effort to stop it. Right here where your policies said we’ll protect everyone except the queer kids. Right here where you are busy crafting a statement to release to the press which absolves yourself from any guilt over the fact that it was all so completely predictable.

Anoka-Hennepin School Board to parents concerned about bullying: You’re all liars

Timothy Kincaid

December 16th, 2010

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board has a unique approach to the rather serious problem of bullying and suicide in their district: deny that it exists. Although there have been nine student suicides in the past year and significant media coverage of first-hand reports of bullying, the School Board has chosen to set aside testimony from parents and students and instead rely on their paperwork to “discover” that none of the bullied students that killed themselves were bullied.

Monday night’s meeting of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board was a contentious one as the issue of bullying and suicide in the district again came up. The state’s largest school district opened an investigation into the suicides of nine students over the past year — some by students who were allegedly bullied for their sexual orientation — and said that it found no evidence that any of the nine were bullied. Students and parents criticized the district for its statement — at times the conversation devolved to shouting — while district officials said there’s not much they can do if students and parents don’t report incidents to the schools.

No one – not one living person affiliated with these schools who has even the slightest smidgen of honesty and decency – is unaware of the fact that gay kids are being tormented in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. But the School Board seems determined not to know about it. (Minnesota Independent)

Over the last 18 months, the district has been at the heart of the debate over LGBT-bullying. In late 2009, a high-profile investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found that two teachers in the district conspired to harass a student they thought was gay. The teachers went on leave, and the district paid $25,000 to the student.

Then, in July, the suicide death of gay 15-year-old Anoka student Justin Aaberg sparked an uproar. Parents, teachers and students held a series of press events and gave testimonials before the school board where advocates said that as many of four students took their lives at least in part because of bullying.

Carlson said that these statements by students, staff and parents at school board meetings weren’t truthful based on data from the district’s student services department.

“None of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying,” said Supt. Dennis Carlson

“As we all try to heal from the pain of these deaths the continuation of inaccurate information is not helpful,” he said. “Once again we have no evidence that bullying played a role in any of our students deaths. In a few instances, people told the school board and district leaders that employees stood by while a student was bullied. These statements are also not true. We have no evidence of that occurring.”

Superintendent Dennis Carlson

Nor are they likely to get “evidence.” Because a policy actively discourages students from reporting bullying based on sexual orientation and teachers from discussing it.

From 1995 until February 2009 (yes, last year), the School Board policy was to ban teachers – including health staff – from referring to homosexuality “as a normal, valid lifestyle.” In 2009, this policy was changed for the better:

“Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations. Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.”

However, this is still well understood by teachers to continue to mean “don’t talk about this.” Any mention that Michelangelo was homosexual, or Alan Turing, or Harvey Milk, for that matter, was not “neutral.” So rather than risk punishment, teachers are forced to pretend that gay people don’t exist.

But worse, teachers assumed that stepping to stop anti-gay bullying – or even saying that such bullying was bad – was not “neutral” position. And, as Focus on the Family and other anti-gay activist groups have made clear, any opposition to anti-gay bullying is labeled “the homosexual agenda.” Nor did the district’s anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies include any mention of sexual orientation.

All of the discussion about not tormenting gay kids was “best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations” like the Parents Action League where it can be augmented with such messages as gay people choose to be gay, are pedophiles, are rife with horrible diseases, and die 20 years before good wholesome real people. And besides, the blame for the suicides is “a continuous onslaught of pro-homosexual diversity”, anyway.

So bullying is rampant. And teachers were left with no message from the School Board that they should stop it and a more than subtle hint that they should not get involved.

Nor are students likely to report it themselves. As one teacher told the Independent “any mention of homosexuality is supposed to cause the teacher to make a referral to the counselor or school psychologist.” Rather than be protected, the kid is presumed to need mental health advice.

Finally in October of this year, after fiery denunciations of the Board from the parents of dead children, the Board revised their anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies to list protected classes, including sexual orientation. But they angrily refuse to change the “neutrality” policy that silences any reference to gay people at all.

And the Board has dug in its heels and is absolutely refusing to acknowledge that anti-gay bullying really exists or that it is part of the problem of suicide in their district. The bullied children didn’t fill our the right paperwork, you see, so therefore it didn’t happen.

And that is enough for the Anoka-Hennepin School Board.

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