BLUE EARTH, MINN. – In the days after four Blue Earth Area High School football players were charged with beating his son unconscious at a party, Dale Hurley's phone blew up with expressions of support.

More than 100 people in this prairie town of 3,300 near the Iowa border lent their backing on social media to Hurley and his wife, Tonya, as they struggled with the aftermath of a beating that left their 16-year-old with primary and secondary concussions — and led to felony charges in November against four of his teammates.

"It took us two weeks to sort through everything on Facebook," Dale Hurley said in an interview at his home this week.

Frustrated parents and townspeople who shared their stories with the Hurleys say it's about time Blue Earth schools stand up and confront a long-standing culture of bullying. So many turned out to deliver that message at a school board meeting last month that board members had to move the discussion to a larger venue to accommodate the crowd.

"It's been going on since I was there and even before me. They've been ignoring it for so long," said Stephanie Bruce, who attended high school in Blue Earth in the early 1990s but transferred to nearby Truman to escape what she called pervasive bullying.

District officials don't deny there is a problem but say they're doing everything they can to discourage bullying and address it when it surfaces. In hopes of tackling the issue, the district recently formed a task force made up of students, parents, community members, board members, staff and administrators.

"Our district is addressing the concerns that were raised," Blue Earth Superintendent Evan Gough said this week.

Gough said the task force will start meeting soon "with the main goal of improving the overall learning climate at Blue Earth Area."

To be sure, Blue Earth isn't the only place with bullying issues, said Frankie Bly, school board chairman. But he pledged the district would face the issue head-on.

"We're not gonna sweep it under the rug," he said.

Kids transfer out

In raw, emotional messages left with the Hurleys, parents told stories about their children cutting themselves and engaging in other forms of self-harm after being bullied.

Some children, they said, threatened or attempted suicide. The bullying got so bad for some that parents said they decided to transfer their children to other school districts in the area after Blue Earth officials failed to respond effectively.

According to figures compiled by the state Department of Education, 108 students left the Blue Earth district between the 2016 and 2017 school years to open-enroll in another district. That's about 9 percent of the district's enrollment, or one of every 11 students.

When Bruce's daughter, Lilly, was bullied as a Blue Earth sophomore, her mother pulled her out of school and enrolled her in the Granada-Huntley-East Chain district, some 20 miles away. Lilly Bruce graduated from the Granada district in 2015 and is now an honors student at South Dakota State University.

She said she reported her bullying to teachers and school officials at the time it happened, "but nothing was done and I knew nothing would be done," she said in an interview this week.

"It's all about what your last name is in that town," she said.

Deb Shaffer said her son, Shawn Kane, was viciously bullied in Blue Earth schools for years, targeted because of a learning disability.

Shaffer and her son, now 18, moved to Colorado recently in the wake of two brutal beatings Kane received at the hands of several students — including, Shaffer said, at least one of the football players charged with beating Dale Hurley's son.

Like that incident, one of Kane's beatings last summer was filmed on a smartphone by a bystander or participant.

Shaffer said she has turned over a copy of the video to police but is angry that her son faced ongoing harassment throughout his adolescence.

"He's been a target of bullying and assaults since he was in middle school," she said. "It goes on for years and they would never do anything about it."

Shaffer said it's not uncommon for some of the young people to make videos of fights and circulate them among classmates for entertainment. She believes her son was taken to the countryside outside of town that night specifically so his attackers could beat him and film it.

Devorah Heitner, an academic and author who studies youth and social media, said those incidents aren't unusual, adding that the rise of smartphones and social-media platforms has given bullies more places to thrive.

"There have to be real consequences for this kind of behavior," said Heitner, whose most recent book is "Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World."

Filming attacks is "obviously horrific," she said. "Unfortunately, kids have always been capable of this kind of violence. Smartphones give kids the opportunity to share and relive it."

An abusive jock culture

Part of the problem in Blue Earth, several residents said, is that the schools have an athletic bent, and coaches haven't done enough to rein in an abusive jock culture.

"In sports, those varsity boys beat down on the younger kids," said Amy Ihle, a lifelong resident. "The kids just think it's normal to be punched."

Her 15-year-old son grew so disenchanted with the abuse from older athletes that he is considering giving up sports, she said.

"What are we teaching our boys?" she said. "I don't want my son to be taught that you can get away with things because you're an athlete."

Dale and Tonya Hurley's son, a sophomore lineman on the football team, missed almost three weeks of school while recovering from his head injuries. While he was home, his attackers were showing the video of his beating to other kids at school.

On the first day he returned to class, Dale Hurley said, another student taunted him about the beating. After learning of the ridicule, the school sent the taunter home for the day.

"My son is the victim," Tonya Hurley said, "and he is the one being punished."