As hate mail poured in and national media scrutinized the Anoka-Hennepin School District after several student suicides and charges of widespread bullying, Superintendent Dennis Carlson understood what few others could.

Twenty-five years ago, Carlson’s 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed in an accident, and each time he learned that one of his students had died, the pain and anguish of losing a child overwhelmed him. Ultimately, it turned him into a driven man.

“Dennis’s goal never was to alienate part of the community,” Carlson’s wife, Edee, said last week. “But after Sarah died, we quietly said we will do anything to protect kids. And nothing was going to get in his way — not the hatred that came through the Internet or the hatred that sometimes came from the community.

“Once you’ve dealt with the death of a child, there isn’t a lot that frightens you.”

Now, in his final year as superintendent of Minnesota’s largest school district, and one of the nation’s most closely watched, Carlson has become a powerful advocate for gay students’ rights while decrying bullying of all forms.

“I have learned more and more as superintendent to rely on the experts,” Carlson said. “Those are not politicians. In many cases, they’re kids. Sometimes, gay kids.

“I never thought I was somehow right because I was hated by the same numbers from the liberal left and conservative right.”

He felt it personally

Carlson, 65, says his first and only obligation is to the 38,000 students in his district. But often he focuses on seven students the district lost between 2009 and 2011 — all suicides and at least three of whom friends and family identified as gay or having been bullied.

“It hit me personally,” said Carlson, who was named superintendent in February 2009 after holding the position briefly on an interim basis. “I know what it’s like for a family to be taken to the depths of human existence.”

He was living in Elk River the night his daughter, Sarah, drove his car to a birthday party in Zimmerman that he now says she had no business being at. There was a keg, and, Carlson was later told, Sarah had three or four drinks. It wasn’t the first time.

Sarah was a typical kid — active, well liked, in a choir. And she often lived a life her parents knew nothing about. She had been smoking cigarettes for about two years and enjoyed partying, Carlson said.

On May 21, 1988, she sensed she’d had too much to drink and asked a friend to drive her father’s car. A motorist, speeding north on Hwy. 169, headed toward them. Dennis and Edee Carlson heard the ambulance’s siren before getting the phone call that has haunted them ever since.

“To Dennis, there is nothing more precious than a child,” Edee Carlson said. “To see another parent crushed is difficult for him. But to see a child persecuted is something he can’t tolerate.”

In 2010, Carlson told his staff that “we have no evidence that bullying played a role in any of our student deaths.” But last year, he wanted to clarify his comments, apologizing publicly and saying that “there can be no doubt that in many situations, bullying is one of the contributing factors.”

A few weeks later, he helped guide the Anoka-Hennepin district to a landmark settlement of a lawsuit and a federal investigation into bullying of gay and lesbian students, resolved with a detailed antibullying consent decree.

Lane Geldert, a junior from Champlin Park High, was one of six students who filed the lawsuit against the district in 2011 over severe bullying and harassment they endured, allegedly because of real or perceived sexual orientation.

“He’s good-hearted,” Geldert said. “He and his school board took too long to make it happen, but I respect him.”

Sprawling district

Anoka-Hennepin is spread over two counties and includes 13 cities. Carlson is not going to please everyone — and he’s not about to try. But he’s not afraid to offer his opinions.

On gay rights being this generation’s civil rights movement: “For all those people who want to separate our student body into sinners and non-sinners, that’s not what we do in public education. We accept anybody who walks through that door.”

On cyberbullying: “These people hide behind their computers and try to hurt students because of their race, sexuality, weight, disability, because of the way they look. And they’re not just doing it on Facebook anymore. There are apps that can be deleted in 3 seconds, but can cause a student a lifetime of pain.”

Federal Magistrate Judge Steven E. Rau oversaw 12 conferences that propelled the district to its landmark settlement. He describes Carlson as “a great advocate for the school district and for kids.”

Carlson takes the compliments and criticism in stride, yet is aware of it all. A huge music fan who plays the guitar and keeps a framed picture in his office of himself with Grammy-winning blues musician Keb’ Mo’, Carlson canceled his 25-year subscription to Rolling Stone after the magazine’s critical piece last year, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.”

He seems more concerned with kids “who question what we do as relevant,” with recent college graduates who are drowning in debt, and, yes, with homophobic remarks made at open school board meetings.

He comes across as the affable farm kid from Aitkin, Minn., who met his future bride when both were 9; came to the University of Minnesota loving sports and the arts; adores his daughter, Annie, who’s living along the Hudson River in New York, and the daughter whose memory he cherishes every day. He and Edee hope to travel next year, when he is retired.

But for now, he knows where he’s headed.

“We’re like a huge barge rolling down the Mississippi, sometimes locked in the past,” he said of the district. “But I think we’ll get there.”