Wasilla Principal Says Congressman Young Offended Grieving School

The principal of Wasilla High School says Congressman Don Young offended her students at a school assembly yesterday. Young, known for brash talk throughout his four decades in office, spoke to students about suicide and gay marriage in a manner Principal Amy Spargo describes as hurtful.

Young spoke to about 120 students and took questions.

“Congressman Young’s standards are his standards, but in our school, the standards we set for kids are higher than that,” Spargo said in an interview today.

It started to go downhill, she says, after a teacher asked about Alaska’s high suicide rate and framed her question by telling Young that a student at the school took his own life last week.

As reported first reported by Alaska Dispatch News, Young said suicide shows a lack of support from friends and family. Spargo says it was insensitive.

“Our students took offense to that. I took offense to that,” she said.

A spokesman for Young didn’t return messages by our deadline today, but said in a written statement the Congressman was being frank and forthright but acknowledged he should have been more sensitive given the recent tragedy.

Spargo says one student, a friend of the deceased, voiced his disagreement to Young, saying he’d been taught that suicide was a function of depression. Spargo says Young didn’t take it well and the discussion escalated.

“The student eventually did, with emotion, say to Congressman Young that the student we lost had friends and that he had support and his family loved him,” Spargo says.

Young later said the boy needed to learn some respect, but Spargo says she’s proud of how all the students handled themselves.

“We spend a lot of time talking at our school about how we treat people,” she says. “When somebody treats someone in a way that’s disrespectful we call foul on that and, really, what our students did was they called foul on the way they were being spoken to.”

16-year-old Danika Ingersoll arrived at the assembly late. She missed the exchange about suicide but heard Congressman Young condemn gay marriage.

“He made it really clear he thought it was morally wrong and ‘out of the question’ was one of the things he kept repeating,” she recalls.
She also says he brought up animals, saying something like if you put two bulls together they don’t produce a calf. That didn’t go over well, either, she says.

“People were whispering and shuffling in their seats. It was just an uncomfortable place to be,” Ingersoll says.

Classmate Reagan Johnson also missed the suicide comments but heard Young disparage gay unions.

“It was kind of abrasive and he brought in a lot of statements that were kind of hurtful to our school, just because we are a safe space, and it was a little harsh,” Johnson said.

On ADN.Com the story quickly attracted hundreds of comments. Some thought the reaction to Young’s remarks was a case of political correctness run amok.

Young, 81, has been in office since 1973. It’s not the first time his frank talk with teens has raised eyebrows. He once used a crude term for a sexual act in talking to Fairbanks students about the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Spargo, the principal, says some parents are questioning her judgment in allowing the Congressman to speak to students.

“They are thinking I should have seen this coming,” she says. “But I’ve had really great experiences with kids interacting with our national leaders … so I had no reason to believe it would become a hurtful experience for them.”

Young’s Democratic challenger, Forrest Dunbar, agrees Young’s comments were insensitive but says he’s sure the Congressman is sorry he said them. Dunbar says he doesn’t intend to exploit the error for political gain.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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