Searching for Solutions Amid Rise in Gay Teen Suicides

This flyer is from a vigil held Sunday, Oct.3 at New York University.

OutFront Minnesota, the largest gay-rights organization in the state, will hold a vigil 7 p.m. tonight at Loring Park in response to several student suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin school district which have been attributed to bullying.

The vigil is commendable, but not entirely unique. These gatherings have been taking place across the country amid a perceived rise in suicides involving gay teens who were bullied. But as Liz Goodwin of Yahoo points out, these vigils and overzealously attributing the act of suicide to gay bullying may be compounding the problem.

For her story, Goodwin interviewed Ann Haas, research director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Haas argues that singling out gay bullying as a cause for suicide — and not acknowledging mental illness — has the potential to normalize the act and inspire other teens who’ve been bullied. Haas says:

“We know quite a bit about what kinds of media stories can encourage copycat suicides … There’s an identification there that could lead you to feel, well, ‘My goodness, this person was feeling the same thing that I’m feeling, and he took his life.’ It kind of normalizes suicide. It presents it as a sort of an understandable if not socially acceptable response to a problem. If a story is presented from the viewpoint of the mental disorders that commonly lead to suicide, it’s much less likely to have that kind of identification that leads young people to copy the behavior.”

OutFront Minnesota is calling on Minnesota lawmakers to draft an anti-bullying policy for Minnesota public schools during the upcoming special session. It’s hard to say what that policy would look like in terms of implementation and enforcement. Any legislation would lean heavily on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), which gave schools the right to punish conduct that would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” The same decision supports disciplining verbally abusive bullies, so long as school officials were “able to show that [their] action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.” In this case, it would be about protecting bullied students.

I know a teacher who argues anti-bullying policy is the wrong way to go. She believes creating a bubble of protection around a student, particularly a gay student, would harm their emotional development, creating bigger issues down the road. The idea is kids who are different must develop thick skin, and they can’t do it when school is made into a utopian, idealistic environment. She argues some of us will always be the last picked or the least popular. How will a child develop their character and strength if they’re fooled to think otherwise? It’s an interesting, albeit hard-to-swallow concept.

I’m in the camp that believes creating an anti-bullying policy is just spitting on the fire. There are many organizations who’ve already changed their messaging in light of recent events. “Tolerance is good” is being replaced by, “Hell yeah, it’s hard being gay. But you’re loved.” Kudos to The Trevor Project and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project for leading the way.

At this point, the media has a responsibility to examine why, all of the sudden, gay teens are committing suicide. There isn’t one element to these stories — homosexuality, bullying, suicide — that’s unique to here and now. What’s inspired this unfortunate behavior? The question everyone’s too uncomfortable to ask: Are these suicides being glorified?

What’s your take? Why the sudden rise? Should schools institute an anti-bullying policy?

More Than School Closure, North Side Needs Action

Students from Minneapolis North High School pose for a picture at this year's homecoming football game.

To invest in the city’s oldest public high school or build new headquarters for the Minneapolis School District?

Seems like a no-brainer, right? If only…

The Minneapolis school board has been faced with these questions this year amidst a shrinking state budget and mounting needs from the city’s North Side. This spring, the school board approved a plan to relocate the district headquarters from Northeast Minneapolis to the North Side. At the time, the facility was estimated at $27.5 million and considered an investment into one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city.

On Tuesday, the project was contracted out at $37 million — almost $10 million more than the plan the school board members had initially approved. On the same night, residents from the North Side protested against shutting down North High School, a school made for 1,700 students with only about 250 enrolled.

This is one of the rare issues where it doesn’t take a personal investment or great amount of interest to see something has gone terribly amiss.

In Wednesday’s Star Tribune, public schools reporter Corey Mitchell wrote,

“Residents accused [Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia] Johnson and the school board of systematically setting up North to fail by not recruiting students, not providing a steady curriculum for them and not pouring resources into North that neighboring high schools have.”

North Side is across the river from where I live and it’s an area I generally avoid. It’s the city’s crime center — have a look at this map of shots fired — and a less than ideal place to move your family or send your kids to school. That has to change. Great cities don’t let entire neighborhoods die.

Should North shut down, what will replace it?

In Waiting for “Superman” — yeah, I know, another tired reference — director Davis Guggenheim illustrates how a struggling school harms the overall health of a neighborhood. Students at North continue to show the lowest math and science proficiency in the city. In 2010, just eight percent of juniors were proficient in math while four percent of the student body was proficient in science.

How do things improve for these students when their school shuts down? Where do they go?

Eventually, the city must destroy and rebuild the North Side. Maybe that starts with closing the doors at North and exploring innovative solutions to educate and mobilize North Side youth. Maybe we need to take some of the tax dollars spent on crime enforcement and invest in neighborhood programs to keep today’s youth from being tomorrow’s felons. Maybe the school district needs to realize you can’t go $10 million over plan on a project many deemed frivolous in the first place.

The North Side has been at a crossroads for years and it’s beyond me how cozier digs for the Minneapolis School District leads to better education for area youth. Call it an investment in the neighborhood, but in truth, it’s just a fancy new office building full of people who will take their paychecks back to the ‘burbs.

Headquarters is slated for a Summer 2012 opening. The sooner, the better. Maybe an everyday drive to the North Side will be a wake-up call for the hundreds of district employees to finally see North is about more than a few hundred students and their failing test scores.

North High School is the story of a community in peril and a community in need of action.

Marketing of Zombie Pub Crawl Lacked Brains (Updated)

In today’s episode of Obsessions I’ll Never Quite Understand — zombies.

An estimated 13,000 people took part in the sixth annual Zombie Pub Crawl Saturday along the West Bank in Minneapolis.

I can’t imagine anything worse than thousands of boozed up 20-somethings caked in makeup and corn syrup to appear dead — or undead — roaming the streets of Minneapolis. This zombie craze is beyond me. I don’t get it. Booze, I get. You know what’s delicious with booze? Not (fake) brains. Cheeseballs, for example.

All of the sudden, it’s cool to like zombies. I’m putting that one on hipsters and Zombieland, which was actually a pretty decent movie. Ultimately, it’s about shock value. It’s about being weird and different and taking stupid photos of yourself for Facebook and having the audacity to be 28 and unemployed yet the free time to design an ornate zombie costume complete with fake gaping wounds. Am I right?

Probably not.

For the first time ever, the Zombie Pub Crawl required a $10 wristband to the chagrin of local zombie enthusiasts. Organizers of the event sensed there would be unrest, so they explained the fee on their website:

“Wristbands also allow us to pay for security guards, which we’re hiring because last year a couple people got mugged and a few bars had their windows broken, and we don’t want that kind of thing happening at the ZPC. We want it to be fun and safe. It also allows us to pay some of the people who’ve been helping us, like DWITT, our poster illustrator, who until this year has been paid only in cases of beer. And Matt, our web designer, who just had a kid. The money also goes to booking bands and renting a bunch of porta-potties. A bunch of the money from wristbands will go to state in the form of sales and entertainment taxes. We’re also planning to donate a portion of proceeds to the University of Minnesota Department of Neurology’s Alzheimer Research Program (because healthy brains taste better!). And finally, after all that, we’re going to pay ourselves for the time we put into organizing this thing, which we’ve done for free five years in a row now.”

Full disclosure is a good thing, but the organizers seriously lacked tact in explaining where the money would go. (Security guards, poster illustrator, web designer, bands, porta-potties, taxes, charity, us.)

If 13,000 showed and paid $10 a head, I wonder how much of that $130,000 made it to the University of Minnesota Department of Neurology’s Alzheimer’s Research Program. It’s a great cause thematically, but I doubt a few thousand dollars goes very far with brain research.

Furthermore, if the ZPC is aligning with a charity, that should have been made more prominent in its marketing. People like myself may have then been more interested in attending, sans zombie costume.

I’m sure the ZPC will be back next year, bigger and bolder. The organizers should take it upon themselves to align with a smaller charity in need; one where a few thousand dollars will really go somewhere.

UPDATED at 1:03 p.m.

Just received comment from Taylor Carik, one of the organizers of the Minneapolis Zombie Pub Crawl:

“Hi Andrew,

My name is Taylor, and I’m one of the organizers of the Zombie Pub Crawl.  Some details of the event might give you a different impression the pub crawl, particularly from a marketing perspective. 

There’s a total of five part-time organizers for the event, and in the days leading up to the pub crawl we had a lot on our brains.  We certainly could’ve — and should’ve — done more consistent *messaging* and we’re bummed at that missed opportunity.

Four of us started the First Annual Zombie Pub Crawl with 100 people in 2004 in Northeast Minneapolis, and we’ve built up the event year after year with our own free time, effort and specialties to consistently double the number of participants. 

For our marketing approach, we made an active decision this year to only promote the event through Twitter and Facebook, and to leverage the audience our media partners at The Onion and Yelp!. 

As the attendance numbers grew, so did the editorial exposure in several news publications and the word of mouth, which we then highlighted through our digital channels.  When questions came up, we engaged people’s questions in public and did our best to respond in a personal manner, and we also did a week of contesting with some of our VIZ passes and show tickets. 

We started the event with a marketing budget of $500, which we paid to DWITT to make us a killer poster to use online.  And with that “ad spend”, we ended up having around 13,000 ‘unemployed hipsters’ (do you include marketing interns in that?) attend the event, making it unofficially the largest pub crawl in the world and larger than many well known Twin Cities events like Rock the Garden and Soundset.

From our perspective we see that as a pretty successful marketing campaign with a huge conversion rate and pretty high return that was basically unfunded and all digital. 

In terms of the charity, because of the size and complexity of the event, we’re still taking a look at before, during, and after the event expenses, so even we don’t know how much of the revenue will go to Alzheimer’s Research.  We’re thinking it might be fun to print a giant novelty check for us to deliver to the University of Minnesota and also include that in future promotional materials. 

See you at the crawl next year!”

OK, per usual, maybe I was a little too hard on the hipster set. My marketing internship makes me, eh, 66 percent employed. Points made.

Bottomline: ZPC has been a wildly successful event and I wish Carik and Co. the best. I’d be happy to reprint the final donation total and even take part in next year’s event.

But I’m not wearing a damn zombie costume.

Football Players Less Like Nitschke, More Like Nietzsche

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, at the end of the day, is not a wordsmith, and it is what it is.

As my Minnesota Vikings flailed through an unsightly 14-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins yesterday, I started preparing myself for a season of disappointment. Going back to 1990, only about 10 percent of 160 teams to start 0-2 made the playoffs. It’s Sept. 20 and I’m ready to write the eulogy on the 2010 season. It’s going to be a long winter.

It may also be a season full of idioms like “it is what it is” and “at the end of the day.” These are two of the most common phrases used by sports types when explaining failure. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen is famous for using both in failures both athletic and political:

On Sept. 19, 2009, regarding the lasting effects from a cheap shot the previous season by Lions offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus: “Yeah, it stinks. My knee still clicks, but it is what it is.”

On Aug. 15, 2010, responding to New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams vow to aggressively pursue Brett Favre in the season-opener: “Those are just meathead comments. You know what, it is what it is. People trying to get their team fired up. They’re trying not to let a successful season get to them … at the end of the day people are going to talk with their pads and we’ll see how things happen down in New Orleans.”

On Nov. 6, 2008, following Barack Obama’s victory over Sen. John McCain in the presidential election: “It is what it is and McCain, I still love you, and Obama, you better do what you promised because the whole country is watching.”

What Allen lacks in prose he makes made up for in mullet. (Perhaps with Allen’s mullet went the Vikings’ 2010 hopes and dreams?)

I equally despise the cliche “at a loss for words,” but I’d rather that be the case than resorting to dumb ones. It is what it is? At the end of the day? What does that even mean? Let’s take a look:

“It is what it is.”

According to Urban Dictionary — the foremost authority on these things — “this incredibly versatile phrase can be literally translated as ‘f*ck it.'” Fitting. I’ve always felt it’s a phrase existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche would appreciate:

Jared Allen: “We worked our tails off, but Rodgers is a great quarterback, man, and it is what it is.”

Friedrich Nietzsche: “You bet your ass, it is.”

“At the end of the day.”

Urban Dictionary says, “A saying mostly used by people trying to prove points without having any other intelligent way of expressing it.” Far be it from a bunch of oversized grunts to intellectualize why they’re horrible at a boy’s game. Is the “day” metaphorical? Does it end at midnight or is that subject to change? And what’s going on at the end of the day? What’s the difference between then and now? What changed from the start of the day? Will things be the same tomorrow? Why do you not kick a chip-shot 43-yard field goal on 4th and 2 on the opening drive? Was that a call you’d make differently at the end of the day? Are you the Antichrist? Are you talking 2012 shit, like End of Days? Have you seen End of Days? Not Schwarzenegger’s best work, but it is what it is. Wait, dammit!

If I spend the next four months in a fetal position, it’s not because I can’t stand watching a season wither away. Again, I’m a Vikings fan. What I can’t stand is the nonsensical blubbering you get from the world’s most elite athletes, who can bench press 400 pounds but can’t parse a meaningful phrase even if their contract bonus depended on it.

Obligatory Atmosphere Plug

Minneapolis hip-hop outfit Atmosphere hit No. 1 last week with the release of its double EP, To All My Friends/Blood Makes the Blade Holy. How it is an independent hip-hop act from the Midwest did with a double EP that was barely promoted is beyond me, but nevertheless, I celebrated by snatching up tickets to their November 28 show at First Avenue. (Anyone else going?)

Fifth Element — the home base of Atmosphere and it’s record label, Rhymesayers Entertainment — posted three clips on YouTube last week, with the first two focusing on how Sean Daley (Slug) has grown as a writer and how the double EP came to be. The No. 1 spot may have been a fluke, but give Daley a few minutes and you’ll jump on the bandwagon:

Rejects Revel in Minnesota’s Misery

My good friend Jake (left) is a Minnesota graduation and current grad school student. I am a Minnesota reject.

Let me preface this post by saying I was rejected by the University of Minnesota. I was the over-involved high school student who thought a litany of extracurriculars would compensate for a slacktastic GPA. I ended up attending Minnesota State University Mankato and I’ve been holding a grudge against the maroon and gold for eight years strong.

That said, I still wish they would’ve let me in. That’s why I wore a Gophers t-shirt and temporary tattoos (for like 14 minutes) while tailgating at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. My girlfriend and I had intended to see the game — Minnesota vs. South Dakota — but chose to watch the game from a bar neighboring the stadium.

Famously, the Gophers lost to the Coyotes, a I-AA team that just might be the second-best in South Dakota. I played high school football with guys who turned their nose up to USD, yet it was Vermillion’s own who won 41-38. Before halftime, the temporary tattoos were long gone and my shirt was inside out. I was the obnoxious guy at the bar who cheered a little too loud for the opposing team. Luckily, Gophers fans have a firm grip on reality and I managed to avoid any haymakers.

Minnesota is a fine institution, but sort of like that friend you love to see fail. The team, especially coach Tim Brewster, has been lynched by the local media and fan base for what’s got to be the most embarrassing loss in team history. Darren “Doogie” Wolfson, in his blog for the Star Tribune, wrote:

When your players skip out on “Hail Minnesota” at the end of the game; when the TCF Bank Stadium crowd for three straight appearances — remember the vitriol from the Illinois & South Dakota State games — turns extremely ugly on the coach and the program; when some of Brewster’s biggest supporters on the local site and turn on him; when it’s hard to figure out if the team is any better today compared to when Brewster took over; when Brewster said the program was “light-years” ahead of when he took it over; and when Brewster called this his most athletic team to date, it’s time for a change.

Off-the-field incidents? They can be sort-of excused. Recruiting violations? The same. But a loss to South Dakota is inexcusable.

Here’s the thing. Many argue sports media are too hard on college athletes. They are, after all, young men who are bound to make mistakes. When they win, however, college athletes are steeped in praise, showered in rewards, honored like humanitarians or noblemen. When they win, we treat them less like college athletes and more like heroes and saints.

What keeps the scale from tipping? Criticism. Bold, harsh, relentless criticism. That’s why I don’t feel bad for Minnesota, Brewster, athletic director Joel Maturi or the team. Sooner or later, the program will be back in the Top 25. For now, they hardly seem worthy of their new $500 million stadium, let alone a healthy chunk of the West Bank that might better serve as parking lot. For now, Minnesota is like a drunken Goliath, and the USDavids have no problem taking them down a notch.

So, even though I put on my Gophers shirt Saturday morning and pretended I had some attachment/connection the school, the reality is I couldn’t have been happier to see them lose. I’m sure there’s hundreds of Minnesota rejects who feel the same way.

What Winning and Losing Really Means

If ever there was an image to depict the 49 years of failure by the Minnesota Vikings, this is it. Will the 50th season be any different?

I was living in Portland, Ore. when the New Orleans Saints defeated my Minnesota Vikings in last year’s NFC Championship. Famously, the Vikings dominated the Saints for four quarters, but committed turnover after turnover, including a costly interception by quarterback Brett Favre just as the team was positioned for a game-winning field goal attempt in overtime:

I don’t want to relive it, but many Vikings fans will tonight when The Purple seek revenge against the Saints at the Superdome.

Back to living in Portland. I was as traumatized as most, but lucky for having lived and worked in a city that was largely apathetic to the NFL. If I’d lived in Minnesota, I doubt I would’ve gone to work. Misery loves company and all, but we fans of Minnesota pro sports have played that card too often. I would’ve spent the week in bed.

Last night, my girlfriend and I attended a Minnesota Twins game. (I went because the company I worked for was offered a spot in a suite. Beth went because upper deck tickets were just $4.) I got into a conversation with two women in their 30s who remember (fondly) the Minnesota Twins winning the 1991 World Series. One was at Game 7 while the other missed school to attend the World Series parade. That’s all I needed to hear, because it made me realize that’s all we Vikings fans really want: A celebration to break up the monotony. Something positive for a change. We want a parade.

As a sports fan, I’ve hedged my emotional investments after countless heartbreaks. You might argue it’s me getting older, wiser, more sensible, and realizing pro sports are merely entertainment. I don’t disagree.

However, I believe pro sports also bring about civic pride. There’s a reason we wear the team gear outside of season, kind of like a proclamation — This is where I’m from. This is what I’m about. A city like Minneapolis has a billion things to be proud of, but we can’t brag about our lakes, the arts scene and our best bicycling city title. Nothing could make us stick out our chests like a Super Bowl win. It’s not about pride in our town, but pride in our city. It just so happens pro sports are the best measuring stick.

I’ve argued, time and time again, sports matter because they don’t matter. We live at a time where everything matters — the economy, the housing market, the BP oil spill, the wars, etc. (And I don’t mean to underplay other issues using an et cetera, but that list could go on for days.) All the world’s seriousness stops outside of the stadium, never crosses the sidelines and can’t stop us from ejecting off our coaches when our favorite team scores a touchdown or hits a home run. That’s the beauty of it. The best part about pro sports is our team can lose and it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

The Vikings are five-point underdogs tonight. It’s possible the Saints throttle the Vikings and we’re left with the cold reminder brilliant seasons like last year’s are rare. It’s also possible they’ll go down to New Orleans and level revenge and have the Greater Twin Cities teeming with hope come Friday morning.

Either way, it’s better to be here, in Minneapolis, no matter suffering or celebrating. Although celebrating would be nice for a change.