Two years after his suicide, Jacob LeTourneau-Elsharkawy's family is suing the Chisago Lakes School District for allegedly neglecting to address bullying and special education needs. Credit: Faith Elsharkawy

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Jacob LeTourneau-Elsharkawy’s classmates bullied him at Chisago Lakes Middle School. They would call him a “terrorist” and “bomber man”; they would mock him because his mother wore a hijab and his stepfather was Egyptian.

Jacob’s mental health started to deteriorate around eighth grade, especially after school administrators failed to address his bullies, his mother, Faith Elsharkawy, said. Jacob entered elementary school as a student identified with special needs. Later, Jacob was diagnosed with anxiety, ADHD, and learning disabilities. Classmates bullied him for that, too. 

Elsharkawy said the school administrators not only failed to accommodate his disabilities in the classroom, but constantly reprimanded Jacob for them. For example, if Jacob fidgeted in his seat, he would receive a detention.

Elsharkawy said the bullying and disciplinary action against Jacob in school led her 15-year-old son to hang himself in April 2018.

Elsharkawy is now suing the Chisago Lakes School District, alleging that Jacob took his life after school officials neglected to address the family’s repeated attempts to report “severe bullying.” Elsharkawy said that the school administrators failed to keep her son safe.

“They go to school for eight hours a day,” Elsharkawy said. “As parents, we expect them to be safe in that environment.”

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, joined by the national organization, filed the lawsuit in federal court Wednesday morning, before a press conference on behalf of Elsharkawy. CAIR is a civil rights and advocacy group dedicated to protecting Muslim Americans who have been targets of discrimination. 

Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney for CAIR, said they decided to pursue legal action because school administrators in Minnesota have failed to enact any changes after Jacob’s death. Elsharkawy is seeking compensation for financial damages such as medical, funeral, and burial expenses, and the loss of gifts or benefits that Elsharkawy would have received from Jacob, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Elsharkawy formally voiced concerns over Jacob’s bullying with his special education teachers at five meetings. Elsharkawy also contacted the PACER Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of children, youth, and young adults with disabilities. A representative from PACER attended one of these meetings with Elsharkawy. Elsharkawy would also call or email the school’s administrators and special education teachers if Jacob came home and told her he was bullied again.

Abbas cited examples of violence Jacob endured in Chisago Lakes. “When bullying in a school results in a kid being sent to the hospital, concussions, broken bones, two years in a row, that doesn’t come from thin air,” he said. “It reflects a pervasive atmosphere of anti-Muslim bullying.”

In a statement sent to Sahan Journal, Chisago Lakes School District superintendent Dean Jennissen denied statements CAIR has made “related to bullying.” He added the Minnesota Department of Education carefully examined the school district’s actions in April 2019, and determined that the district complied with all policies related to bullying.

“The District continues to empathize with Jacob’s family,” Jennissen said. “We are sad for his mother, step-father, his siblings, and friends. Jacob’s absence is a hole in their lives and our student body that cannot be filled.”

A 2018 study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding suggests that anti-Muslim discrimination is pervasive for kids. A representative sample of American families indicated that 42 percent of Muslim respondents said at least one of their children had been bullied in the past year because of their religion.

Jacob tried to teach his bullies about Islam

In an attempt to fit in the small town of Taylors Falls, northeast of St. Paul, Jacob’s family initially didn’t express their faith very much. Jacob converted to Islam after Elsharkawy married Mohamed Elsharkawy in 2009. Jacob embraced the faith fully after he briefly lived with his stepfather in Egypt a year later. 

According to the lawsuit, Islam became a core aspect of his identity. When students bullied Jacob about his faith, he would take that as an opportunity to teach them about Islam. He wore prayer beads around his wrist and wrote songs about the role faith played in his life. The day before Jacob’s death, he wrote “Religion is my rhythm.”

“One of the beautiful aspects of this story is his resilience and his persistence in continuing to educate the very people that were bullying him,” said Lena Masri, a CAIR attorney on Elsharkawy’s legal team.

At the same time as Jacob entered eighth grade, Jacob’s mother started wearing the hijab. He also started to feel more comfortable sharing his faith identity. But classmates assaulted him twice that year, Elsharkawy said, because of his religion. 

In an October 2016 incident, two students pushed him into a metal door frame. He suffered a concussion and injured his shoulder. 

In response to a complaint Elsharkawy filed with the Minnesota Department of Education after Jacob’s death, Chisago Lakes Schools said, “this was a situation in which friends were fooling around and one friend was too aggressive.” According to the lawsuit, Chisago Lakes Schools also disputed the medical report because it did not “indicate how Jacob suffered the concussion or injured his shoulder.”

In October 2017, a student choked Jacob on the school bus. In November 2017, a student punched Jacob, ripped his clothes, and pulled his hair. 

Jacob was diagnosed with a concussion and “extensive bruising on his face and much of his upper body,” the lawsuit said. Two months before he died, a group of students threw spaghetti at Jacob during lunch.

A suspension for fidgeting in his seat

Elsharkawy brought up the bullying on five occasions at Jacob’s individualized education plan (IEP) meetings with the school district. The IEP would allow for special accommodations to be made for Jacob in the classroom. Jacob’s IEP team included the associate principal, a case manager, a school psychologist, a special education teacher, a guidance counselor, and a school nurse, the lawsuit said. Elsharkawy would also contact the school administrators any time Jacob alerted her of another bullying incident.

“When it comes to the school system,” Elsharkawy said, “it is like butting your head against a brick wall trying to get any changes.”

According to the lawsuit, Jacob’s teachers would suspend him for exhibiting behaviors that his IEP would otherwise have protected. In March 2018, his special education gave Jacob a one-day in-school suspension for fidgeting in his seat. Elsharkawy’s lawyers said this violated Jacob’s IEP.

“Jacob suffered from a severe anxiety attack while serving his in-school suspension,” the lawsuit said. “Nonetheless, his special education teacher made him sign a contract that the next time he fidgeted in his seat, he would receive a two-day suspension.”

Elsharkawy told Jacob’s case manager that the special education teacher should have determined that Jacob was fidgeting in class because of his ADHD. The lawsuit said the school instead dismissed Elsharkawy’s concerns.

At this point, Jacob’s anxiety attacks were “escalating severely”: According to the lawsuit, the school refused to accommodate his sensory disorders while he served detentions and in-school suspensions. 

The week leading up to Jacob’s suicide, he received a detention every day, according to the lawsuit. Jacob told his mother that if he received one more detention, he was going to kill himself. 

Just three days before his death, he experienced another severe anxiety attack during detention.

‘Friends were fooling around’

CAIR alleges the school district failed to protect Jacob as attacks escalated from verbal abuse to physical violence. 

In a statement given to news outlets in 2018, superintendent Jennissen said the district investigates allegations of bullying and takes action when verified.

“CAIR-Minnesota has publicly alleged that a student who committed suicide was bullied because of his faith and that the bullying resulted in concussions and contusions. These inflammatory and offensive allegations are untrue,” Jennissen said in the statement.

By pursuing legal action, CAIR said in a statement that they hope to “seek positive changes in how bullying and suicide around disabilities and religion are addressed in Minnesota schools.”

Masri, the CAIR attorney, dismissed the school’s suggestions that the bullying amounted to friends who were fooling around.

“You can see the callousness and total disregard to the seriousness of what’s going and their unwillingness to take any corrective measures,” Masri said.

Jacob sang about himself as ‘a prisoner of the system’

This fall, Jacob would have just started his senior year of high school. Elsharkawy said he had hoped to go to college to become a graphic designer, a skill he taught himself using free programs. He had also taught himself how to play guitar and wrote his first song after the assault in eighth grade. 

He would often write about his experiences being bullied, Elsharkawy said. In one song, Jacob described feeling like “a prisoner of the system.”

Elsharkawy said she hopes this lawsuit will lead the school to redefine bullying in schools and implement stronger disciplinary measures for bullying. She added that teachers need to be trained to better serve students of diverse backgrounds, and that teachers at Chisago Lakes need to improve how they serve students with special needs.

For now, Elsharkawy has been homeschooling her 16-year-old daughter, after pulling her out of the public school system in 2018. 

“I didn’t feel like it was a safe environment after Jake died,” she said. “I didn’t want it to repeat with my daughter.”

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Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.