Retiring Anoka-Hennepin schools chief faced the toughest tests

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2014 - 1:48 PM

Reflecting on five intense years in the job, retiring Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson continues to be concerned about student success and safety.

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Dennis Carlson, who is retiring as superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin schools, talked last September with students at Anoka High School who had been part of Symphonic Rock, a fundraising concert that raises $25,000 each year to help students in need.

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The subject was $1,000 bullet-proof blankets being marketed to keep children safe in schools.

“It seems to me we’ve reached some level of craziness,” Dennis Carlson said recently, on the eve of his retirement as superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state’s largest.

“Children have to feel safe,” Carlson continued. “But this is the atmosphere we’re going to set for them? My God!”

Carlson, 66, who became superintendent in 2009 and guided Anoka-Hennepin through its most tumultuous and scrutinized period ever, was asked what his legacy might be and to predict the future of education.

He talked about how, earlier this month, a disabled student left his wheelchair, walked on stage and accepted his Blaine High School diploma as the audience erupted in applause.

At another school, Carlson said a custodian approached him. “I just want to thank you,” the man told Carlson. “My daughter got the best education possible.”

And then he talked about the dozens of gay and lesbian kids he met with repeatedly in recent years, kids who were bullied in numerous ways, and about the kids who fought for a landmark consent decree that created a five-year anti-harassment partnership between the school district and the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.

“We did well with keeping our kids safe and making our gay kids feel safe and normal,” Carlson said.

“The legacy should be student success,” he said, pointing to a 95 percent graduation rate over five years. “We stick with our kids. To get to student success, you’ve got to keep them safe.”

Constantly working under a microscope and the blinding glare of the national spotlight, Carlson and his staff toiled for years, searching for words and ways to let LGBT kids know they would be protected while answering questions from critics who wondered whether Christian beliefs were being compromised.

In recent years, six Anoka-Hennepin students committed suicide and a seventh died from a suspected drug overdose. At least three of the six students were identified as gay. Charges of bullying were rampant.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper explored the issue. Rolling Stone came to town. Local media and national networks often seemed unrelenting.

Carlson says he took things very personally and often couldn’t sleep at night. He discovered that media coverage often isn’t balanced, he said, that the cameras and notepads weren’t always interested in hearing all sides of the story, particularly the district administration’s.

Meanwhile, Carlson, the educator, was learning all along. Growing up in rural Aitkin, he says he knew nothing about gay kids. Now, he doesn’t know of another superintendent in the country who has talked to as many gay kids as he has.

“I’m glad I was here at that time,” he said.

It wasn’t easy or always comfortable. Some staff was supportive, he said. Others weren’t.

“It’s really hit me that a ton of this job, you’re alone,” Carlson said. “Not a lot of people weigh in on those [complicated] issues. You do an awful lot of self-reflecting.

“You’re the face of the district, and you get hammered. You can’t say what you know.

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