The Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota has seen nine student suicides over the past year. And how does the superintendent of the state’s largest school district respond?
Student Deaths Not Our Problem
“None of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying,” declared Superintendent Dennis Carlson at a school board meeting on Monday, December 13.
As a teacher, as a parent, as a human being, I am outraged. Instead of showing sympathy, remorse, the desire to do a better job in the face of such enormous human tragedy, the district has taken every opportunity to silence the growing voices of concern and cover their own asses.
This is shameful behavior.
From The Minnesota Independent, a look at what’s been going on in the district:
“We continue to correct inaccurate statements about students who have committed suicide over the past year,” Superintendent Dennis Carlson told district staff. “We know how difficult these deaths have been for our schools. Based on all the information we’ve been able to gather, none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment. In addition to family and friends, many of our employees were personally affected by these tragedies.”
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.
“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.” (My bolds)
Denial In The Face Of Human Tragedy
As if it wasn’t cruel enough to turn a deaf ear to complaints of bullying in the past, the board also chose to ignore freshman student Jacob Tighe who testified on Monday that he was upset that the district called those statements “not true.”
Tighe was brave enough to speak up and say that bullying was a factor in his friend’s death and that even he has experienced anti-gay bullying — and he’s straight.
“Not only did some of these kids who committed suicide get bullied before they died, but one of them, who was a personal friend of mine, was even bullied even after she died. Kids said things like ‘she deserved to die,’” he told the board.
Apparently not even that stirred any concern in the board.
Status Quo More Important Than The Truth
At a board meeting last month, Bill Thurston, the father of an Anoka middle student, spoke up, “Publicly casting doubt on the number of suicides that were LGBT or bullying-related suggests that protecting the status quo is more important than protecting students.”
The board chair interrupted Thurston with, “You are out of line.” The fact that the chair of the board called a parent out of line for speaking the truth during the public comment portion, only shows the chair’s inability to be willing to hear the truth.
Bullying The Most Serious Issue Of 2010
For many of us teachers, bullying has become the most serious issue that we have grappled with in 2010. Care2′s Steve Williams wrote here about the suicide of 15-year-old Billy Lucas in October, due to bullying, and we have had the sad task of writing about a number of other teenage deaths over the past twelve months, beginning with Phoebe Prince, in January.
Recognizing the urgency of dealing with its tragic consequences, Arne Duncan, U.S. Education Secretary, yesterday put out a memo to state leaders outlining key components of strong state bullying laws and practices.
“We need the commitment from everyone at the federal, state and local level to put an end to bullying,” Duncan said. “I hope that highlighting these best practices will help policymakers as they work to keep our children safe and learning.”
Is anyone in the Anoka-Hennepin School District reading this memo? Or do they still think it doesn’t apply to them?
But, for the parents in Anoka-Hennepin, here is some hope. The school board is elected by parents to keep schools safe for learning. Since they aren’t doing their job, you can sue your school district for failing to protect you. Here’s how:
“Bullied” – Amazing Documentary
“Bullied” is an amazing film put together by the Southern Poverty Law Center, documenting the case of Jamie Nabozny who was injured by bullying, sued his school district, and was eventually awarded a settlement of nearly $1 million.
You Can Sue Your School District And Win!
Nabozny’s story is featured in a documentary film and teaching kit produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History,” and its accompanying materials have been distributed to schools nationwide.
You can watch the trailer for the documentary here: