Retiring Anoka-Hennepin school chief Dennis Carlson will leave his pro-student legacy on a district that tackled bullying charges head-on.
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.”