WASILLA -- At a Wasilla High School assembly Tuesday morning, U.S. Rep. Don Young didn't temper his notoriously abrasive personality for his young audience.
Numerous witnesses say Young, 81, acted in a disrespectful and sometimes offensive manner to some students, used profanity and started talking about bull sex when confronted with a question about same-sex marriage.
"We really spend a lot of time at our school talking about how we treat each other," Wasilla Principal Amy Spargo said Tuesday afternoon. "We just don't talk to people that way."
More concerning, school officials say, Young made what they called hurtful and insensitive statements about suicide just days after a Wasilla student took his own life.
That encounter occurred after teacher Carla Swick posed a question about Alaska's high suicide and domestic violence rates and asked what Young's office is doing about it.
Young started talking about suicide, mentioning the role played by alcohol and depression, several witnesses said. The school didn't record the assembly.
But then, witnesses say, Young said suicide shows a lack of support from friends and family.
That comment stunned students and staff still mourning the loss of a student who died Thursday, staffers say.
"When I heard 'a lack of support from family' and I heard 'a lack of support from friends,' I felt the oxygen go out of the room, but I gasped as well," Spargo said. "It just isn't true in these situations. It's just such a hurtful thing to say."
Both Spargo and Swick say a friend of the victim, moved by emotion, shouted at Young, "He had friends. He had support."
"The kid said, 'It's depression -- you know, a mental illness,' " Spargo recalled. As she remembers, Young replied, " 'Well, what, do you just go to the doctor and get diagnosed with suicide?' "
At some point during the exchange, several school staffers say, the congressman also used either the words "---hole" or "smartass."
Young's office issued a statement about his conduct Tuesday evening in response to a request from Alaska Dispatch News.
"Congressman 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," spokesman Matt Shuckerow wrote in an email. "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."
Young, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and Alaska's lone voice there, came to Wasilla High as a guest in a visit arranged by his office and approved by the school.
He wasn't there as a candidate -- Democrat Forrest Dunbar is challenging Young -- but as a congressman, Spargo said. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich came to the school last year. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has visited Wasilla Middle School.
About 120 English and government students gathered in the high school theater, along with a number of staffers. Young spoke for about 15 minutes, then took questions for 45 minutes, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District spokeswoman Catherine Esary, who was there.
Students asked "really well-thought-out questions on topics that are in the news right now, on the election ballot. He was very engaged in the students, they were responsive to him," Esary said, but some of the students became clearly offended.
"At some point it was too strong," she said. "He came on too strong."
Adults present said that over the course of the 60-minute assembly, Young peppered his responses with salty language or stories not appropriate for a high-school audience. He said "hell" several times and told a story that involved flying to Paris to get drunk, Swick said.The story was in reference to the amount of travel time involved in his job.
"Congressman Young responded to each and every question with serious and honest answers, which at times included strong language," Shuckerow said in the statement from Young's office.
Wasilla junior Zachary Grier came to the assembly with his debate class. Grier was excited to see Young in person after watching his Kodiak debate with Dunbar and reading media coverage of the event, which included Dunbar's contention that Young told him not to touch him and saying, "The last guy who touched me ended up on the ground dead," after the younger man brushed his arm.
That surprised Grier, but so did Young's longevity in office. He was curious.
Grier got up and asked Young about Ballot Measure 2 that would legalize recreational marijuana -- "he was completely against it" -- and followed up with questions about the Kodiak debate. Young twice told him to get his hands out of his pockets. Grier complied politely, several witnesses said.
He got in one more question, this one about same-sex marriage.
"I asked why is it so bad in your eyes?" Grier said.
As Spargo described it, Young answered, "You can't have marriage with two men. What do you get with two bulls?"
Witnesses say Young then said something about a lot of "bullshazzle" or some word resembling the more familiar obscenity.
"At that point I was heading for the microphone," the principal said. "It was time to be done." The hour was up, she said, and the tone of the discussion was getting argumentative.
Spargo talked briefly with Young on his way out. He asked her about the student who shouted at him. The principal said he was a friend of the boy who died. " 'I'll take care of it,' " she told Young.
"He told me, 'That boy needs to learn some respect,' " Spargo recalled.
The statement from Young's office said that "a number of students and faculty" thanked him for his visit and "the straightforward discussion" and said the congressman later expressed "his frustration with one particular student who deprived their fellow classmates by talking throughout the presentation."
Young has "communicated with Wasilla High School administration his regret for any offense taken during the honest and spirited discussion," it also says. Spargo said she did get an email from the congressman's office but the attachment was missing.
The principal said she doesn't know if she'll take any action in response to Young's behavior. She's holding a staff meeting Wednesday.
"What I really want to do is just reinforce to the students that suicide is not a function of a lack of support," Spargo said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing