The suicide of a 15-year-old Chisago Lakes High School student last month has led to a dispute between the boy’s mother and the school district over whether he took his own life because he was bullied.
Faith Elsharkawy said at a news conference Tuesday that her son, Jacob Letourneau-Elsharkawy, killed himself April 29 after months of verbal and physical abuse that school administrators failed to effectively address. The boy, who was a freshman at the school, had a learning disability and suffered from anxiety.
The Taylors Falls resident said she reported at least 20 bullying incidents during the school year, including a serious attack on her son while on a school bus, and “all I ever got was, they’d look into it.”
The school district vigorously disputed Elsharkawy’s account, which is being backed by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“CAIR-Minnesota has publicly alleged that a Chisago Lakes student who recently committed suicide was bullied because of his faith and that the bullying resulted in concussions and contusions,” Superintendent Dean Jennissen said in a statement. “These inflammatory and offensive allegations are untrue.
“I can state that the district takes all allegations of bullying seriously; the district investigates all allegations of bullying in accordance with its written policy; and, when bullying is found to have occurred, the district takes prompt and appropriate action.”
Jennissen said in a phone interview Tuesday that school officials held “multiple meetings” with Jacob’s family “any time we were made aware of an incident.
“We are not aware of 20 incidents of the parent appealing to our staff in any way,” he said. “Everything they have brought to us, we have dealt with.”
Jaylani Hussein, CAIR-MN’s executive director, called the teen’s suicide “the Minnesota Muslim community’s worst nightmare.”
“The environment around Jacob changed shortly after his mother began wearing the hijab,” a scarflike head covering worn by many Muslim woman, Hussein said.
CAIR is calling on the state and federal Departments of Education to investigate.
Jacob’s birth father is deceased. His mother converted to Islam after remarrying. Jacob also began identifying as a Muslim nearly two years ago, when he entered eighth grade, Hussein and the boy’s mother said. It was then that he became a target, Hussein said, adding that Jacob and his sister may have been the only Muslim students in the district.
Jacob’s mother described him as “creative, smart and funny. He accepted you as you were and treated you with respect,” she said.
Hussein said Jacob was called a “terrorist” by some students, and suffered a broken collarbone and a concussion when he was shoved violently into a metal door frame.
On Nov. 9, Jacob was assaulted on a school bus, Hussein said, suffering another concussion and more than 100 contusions.
The Lakes Area Police Department investigated the incident and referred it to the Chisago County Attorney for possible criminal charges. A spokesman for the county attorney’s office said Tuesday that the case is under review and that no decision has been made on whether to file charges.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In 2016, 111 Minnesotans in that age group died by suicide — a higher rate than the U.S. average for that group, according to the state Department of Health.
“It is a public health crisis, and we need to treat it as a public health crisis,” Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), a nonprofit group based in Bloomington, told the Star Tribune in an interview last month.