The mother of a student who died by suicide in 2018 is suing the Chisago Lakes School District, alleging that school officials didn’t help the freshman when he was bullied for his Muslim faith and disabilities, and that the bullying led to his death.
The student, Jacob LeTourneau-Elsharkawy, 15, died April 29, 2018. His death followed years of physical and psychological harassment by students and even school officials, his family said. The lawsuit notes Jacob and his mother reported more than 20 incidents of bullying to school staff, including name-calling about his disabilities and religion, and physical abuse that resulted in having his glasses broken and two concussions.
“Defendants created an environment where bullying Jacob became an accepted norm — a norm that would inevitably present a serious danger to Jacob’s safety and well-being — because Defendants did not care to stop it,” the complaint said.
School officials sometimes contributed to the problem, the lawsuit alleges, disciplining the teen when he was bullied and ridiculing him and his mother when they complained.
“For Jacob, school became the most dangerous place,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-Minnesota, at a news conference Wednesday. “We believe this suicide was preventable.”
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced the lawsuit’s filing Wednesday on behalf of the teen’s mother, Faith Elsharkawy. The suit names the district and nine high school employees as defendants.
Dean Jennissen, superintendent of the Chisago Lakes School District, said in a statement that the district denies the statements made by CAIR about bullying. The Minnesota Department of Education examined the district’s actions and determined in April 2019 that it “complied with all applicable laws and policies related to bullying,” he said.
“The district continues to empathize with Jacob’s family,” the statement said. “We are sad for his mother, stepfather, his siblings and friends. Jacob’s absence is a hole in their lives and in our student body that cannot be filled.”
The lawsuit notes Jacob had several disabilities, including ADHD, learning disabilities, anxiety disorder and adjustment disorder. He had an individualized education plan and received special education services at school.
Jacob’s faith, which he was proud of, also played into the alleged abuse, the complaint said. He and his sister were likely the only Muslim students in the district.
“We have learned that Islamophobia is deadly,” Hussein said, adding that it is rampant across the state and nation.
The lawsuit was filed now, Hussein said, because CAIR and LeTourneau-Elsharkawy’s family have “tried everything” to get the school to acknowledge what occurred and make changes. Faith Elsharkawy said every day since she learned her son had died “has been a struggle filled with heartbreak.”
She said Jacob’s relationship with his peers worsened in eighth grade when she began wearing a hijab, which made their Muslim faith visible. Jacob’s birth father is deceased and his mother converted to Islam after remarrying.
Jacob made the family laugh and was caring and talented, his mother said.
“All we have left is a grave to visit, pictures to look at and videos he made,” Elsharkawy said.