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Parents file complaint against Minn. school over son's suicide

Jacob Letourneau-Elsharkawy, a 15-year-old student living in Taylor's Falls, who committed suicide in April, 2018. At a press conference with CAIR-Minnesota on May 22, 2018, his family said Letourneau-Elsharkawy was bullied dozens of times for his Muslim faith leading up to his death. Courtesy of CAIR-Minnesota

ST. PAUL—Last month, a 15-year-old from Taylors Falls, Minn., killed himself.

His parents are now blaming the death on those at his school who bullied him for his Muslim faith as well as the Chisago Lakes School District for failing to intervene sooner.

"The Minnesota Muslim community's worst nightmare occurred here," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Minnesota branch.

The school district contests the claims.

"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. These inflammatory and offensive allegations are untrue," district Superintendent Dean Jennissen said in a statement.

He declined to comment on specific students or incidents, but said the district seriously investigates all bullying allegations and responds with appropriate actions.

The teenager's mother, Faith Elsharkawy, described her son as talented, intelligent and kind.

"When he was in a room, he brightened it up with his contagious smile, his laughter, and wonderful energetic personality," Elsharkawy said in a statement. She later added, "He was a classic comedian. He could make you have belly-roaring laughs that brightened your day. He had a big heart and would stand beside you through thick and thin."

Reports of physical and verbal bullying

According to Hussein, the bullying didn't begin for Jacob Letourneau-Elsharkawy until eighth grade, the same year his mother started wearing a hijab.

Letourneau-Elsharkawy didn't hide his religion, either, defending the Muslim faith against offensive statements and answering questions from his friends about his beliefs, according to Elsharkawy.

He reported being called "terrorist" and other derogatory terms, according to Hussein, and sustained two concussions from separate physical assaults.

The bullying seemed to slow down when Letourneau-Elsharkawy began his freshman year at Chisago Lakes High School, but on Nov. 9 he was assaulted again, according to Hussein. His laptop was broken, he sustained a third concussion and received nearly 100 bruises, and later received multiple explicit death threats from students.

Letourneau-Elsharkawy was taken to the hospital after the Nov. 9 incident and the Lakes Area Police Department investigated. Police Chief Bill Schlumbohm said Hussein's report of injuries was inconsistent with the police report. Also, "the case file does not contain any elements or allegations of religious or racial bias, including information obtained from the victim and family at the time," Schlumbohm said in an email.

The Chisago County attorney's office received the results of the investigation in January and is still reviewing whether to charge the alleged assailant.

Complaining to the school never helped, Elsharkawy said.

"As he shared it, I went back to school to try to get it stopped and then he would end up getting disciplined ... so he just stopped telling me," Elsharkawy said.

Complaints filed

On Tuesday, CAIR-Minnesota filed a complaint against the school with the state Department of Education and asked the federal and state Departments of Education to investigate.

The council is also gathering information for a potential lawsuit against the school.

"We believe the onslaught that happened to Jacob required extensive responses from the school and the school didn't do that," Hussein said.

Elsharkawy urged parents to talk to their children — particularly those from different religions, minorities or those with disabilities — and to fight for better support systems at schools.

"We need safety for our marginalized groups to thrive," Elsharkawy said. "We don't just need equality ... we need the ability for our children to thrive, belong, be valued, and succeed in the system. Together, we are strong enough to make these changes."

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