JUNEAU — U.S. Rep. Don Young has apologized after telling students at a high school where a child recently committed suicide that people kill themselves when there’s a lack of support from family and friends.
During an appearance in front of about 120 students and adults Tuesday in Wasilla, a teacher asked Young about Alaska’s high suicide and domestic violence rates.
“He was talking about the role alcohol plays, and he mentioned depression,” Wasilla High School principal Amy Spargo said. “But he also went on to say that suicide happens when there’s a lack of support from friends and family, and that’s when the students in the room and the adults just took offense — because it’s like blaming the people who are left.”
She said after that, the event started to become more confrontational.
Spargo said she went for the microphone after a student asked about same-sex marriage, saying it was a question of equal rights.
“And Rep. Young told him that this was a question about marriage, and you can’t have marriage with two men,” she said. “And then he went on to say, ‘What do you get when you have two bulls?’ And that seemed to rile the kids up a little bit.”
Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow, in an emailed statement Wednesday, said Young “was very serious and forthright when discussing the issue of suicide, in part because of the high number of tragedies that affect Alaskan youth. He discussed what he believes are leading causes of youth suicide in our state and shared some suggestions for helping family members and friends who are dealing with suicidal thoughts.
“In no way did Congressman Young mean to upset anyone with his well-intentioned message. In light of the tragic events affecting the Wasilla High School community, he should have taken a much more sensitive approach,” Shuckerow said.
He said Young responded to each question “with serious and honest answers, which at times included strong language.” A number of students and faculty members thanked Young afterward for his visit and “straightforward discussion,” he said.
“Congressman Young has communicated with Wasilla High School Administration his regret for any offense taken during the honest and spirited discussion,” Shuckerow said.
Young, the longest serving Republican in the House, has a history of colorful — sometimes offensive — quips, and has made headlines recently more for gaffes than policy.
The House Ethics Committee in June rebuked Young after finding that he had violated House rules by using campaign funds for personal trips and accepting improper gifts. He has since apologized and paid the money back.
Young also was criticized after being caught on camera making faces on the House floor while a colleague discussed a bill to name a post office for a fallen soldier. He also apologized after video circulated of him grabbing the arm of a congressional staffer.
Young was invited to speak at the school in his official capacity, not as a campaign stop. He is seeking re-election against Ivy League-educated political upstart Forrest Dunbar, who said he had several friends take their lives growing up in rural Alaska.
“Suicide can strike any family, and it is truly a mental health issue,” Dunbar said in a statement. He said he hopes Young “has the opportunity to learn more about suicide in Alaskan communities, though I sincerely hope he doesn’t have to learn about it the way I did.”
Young’s re-election chances have been considered strong; Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski endorsed him in a new ad. He has served in Congress since 1973.
Spargo said she planned a staff meeting Wednesday to hear from teachers how much of a disruption Young’s appearance was.
The school plans an event for Friday to remember the student who died and to focus on suicide prevention. “We do that every year, but this is a time we really want to focus on that,” she said.