MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The superintendent of Minnesota's largest school district acknowledged this week that bullying can be a factor in student suicides, but stopped short of saying it directly led to any of six student deaths in his district.
Anoka-Hennepin Schools Superintendent Dennis Carlson made the comments in a statement dated Tuesday and posted on the district's website Thursday. In it, he clarified the reasons behind a statement he made about the suicides more than a year ago, and apologized to those who felt his prior statement was insensitive.
"I absolutely meant no disrespect to any of our students and the adults who care about them and love them," he wrote.
Carlson issued his December 2010 statement to staff after six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. Family members and gay advocacy groups have said some were bullied. At that time, Carlson said there was no evidence bullying played a role in any of the deaths.
His new statement said suicides can have multiple causes, including bullying, mental health problems, or other issues.
"Although no one can ever be absolutely certain of the specific event that leads to a student's suicide, there can be no doubt that in many situations bullying is one of the contributing factors," Carlson wrote.
Carlson said he made his original statement because when professionals talked with students and staff about the suicides, they learned the victims were struggling with many issues, but there was no evidence bullying led directly to any of the suicides.
He said he also wanted to encourage people to come forward if they had evidence of bullying, because there was a rumor circulating that staff had witnessed bullying and done nothing about it. He said four people did come forward, but two would not speak to the district and two had no evidence.
The school district has been in the media spotlight since the suicides, and over a policy that required teachers to be neutral in discussions about sexual orientation. That policy, which is the subject of two lawsuits alleging it prevented teachers from taking effective action against bullying, was recently replaced with one that requires teachers to foster a respectful learning environment for all students.
The lawsuits are in mediation and settlement talks are ongoing.
Julie Blaha, the teachers' union president for Anoka-Hennepin, appreciated the superintendent's statement.
"I think the sentiment is genuine, and if this is part of moving forward on these issues then that's a good thing," Blaha said.
But one former student who was the victim of bullying said the apology falls short. Justin Anderson, a 2010 graduate of Blaine High School, said he first shared his story about being bullied at a school board meeting in 2010 — and when Carlson's original statement came out shortly afterward, he felt like officials thought he and others were lying.
"He is not saying that he believes the students in the district were bullied, he is just saying that bullying can be a factor," Anderson said. "Only time will tell if he's actually sincere about what he wrote, but to me it seems like it all falls a tiny bit flat of an actual apology."
A district spokesman said Friday that Carlson decided not to conduct media interviews about the statement and feels it stands for itself.
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