Human rights agency outlines problems in racial incident in northern Minnesota

COLERAINE, Minn. -- A northern Minnesota public school system "failed to take prompt action" when a student, who later committed suicide, was subjected to "illegal racial harassment," according to a state agency report condemning the district's a...

COLERAINE, Minn. -- A northern Minnesota public school system “failed to take prompt action” when a student, who later committed suicide, was subjected to “illegal racial harassment,” according to a state agency report condemning the district’s actions.

The five-page finding of a Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation, completed in November,  indicates Isaiah Gatimu was the subject of daily racial taunting beginning in September 2012 and continuing until he withdrew from Greenway High School, in Coleraine, in January 2013. Coleraine is northeast of Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota.

Gatimu committed suicide in August 2014. After Gatimu’s death, his mother, Coreen Gatimu , filed a complaint with the state human rights department.

“It is a damning report about the school’s absolute failure to take this seriously despite multiple complaints and its refusal to do anything to stop or punish the perpetrators,” Coreen Gatimu’s attorney, Lori Peterson, wrote in a statement. “It’s a vindication, but nothing will bring Isaiah back to his family. No victory in the world can make this right.”

Greenway superintendent Mark Adams could not be reached for comment, but Greenway school board member Mike Brandt said he has not seen the investigation’s final report, which is dated Nov. 17 and has been leaked to  media outlets by Peterson.


“Of course we care; of course we didn’t want this to happen; it’s a sad story,” said Brandt, who added he expects the investigation to come up at Wednesday’s regular school board meeting. “It’s ignorant for people to think we don’t care. We care as people and don’t want to see this in our district.”

A spokesperson with the Department of Human Rights, Jeff Holman, said there will be no comment on the investigation because it remains an open case. Greenway Public Schools can appeal the state agency’s determination that “probable cause exists to believe that unfair discriminatory practice was committed.” The investigation recommended attempting to “eliminate the unfair practice by informal means.” Holman would not elaborate on what those informal means entail.

Greenway High School introduced a new high school principal, Jeff Britten, in August. Brandt said Britten has elevated the bullying discussion among staff and students since his arrival.

The human rights report said Gatimu , who is black, was subjected to “a hostile educational environment” that denied him “educational benefits and services” normally afforded a student in the school.

The report said Gatimu began experiencing harassment on the first day of school of his senior year, Sept. 4, 2012, when two students told him to “go back to Africa.”

Among the other findings:

  • “From that time on … [ Gatimu ] was called  the ‘n’ word  multiple times a day.”
  • Gatimu was subjected to a chokehold and shoving, was struck with a toy whip and told “the water fountain and the bathrooms were for ‘whites,’” said the report.
  • The report repeatedly references “two white boys” as the culprits.
  • Around January 15, 2013, less than a week before his mother withdrew him from school, “the white boys told [ Gatimu], ‘all of us against you n...’ and ‘we will hang you like your ancestors,’” said the report.
  • The timeline in the report said Gatimu and his mother reached out to a teacher, in September and October 2012, respectively, but that the school’s principal didn’t find out till December 2012.
  • The perpetrating students were told “that their harassing behavior had to stop,” the report said.
  • “There was no consequence or suspension to any of the students for the illegal behavior,” the report said.
  • The district “failed to promptly investigate all incidents, failed to keep records of the complaints, and most important failed to prevent its occurrence,” said the report.
  • Finally, the district “violated its own policies and procedures and failed to maintain a school environment free of harassment and violence, forcing [ Coreen Gatimu] to withdraw her son,” said the report.

Coreen Gatimu could not be reached for comment. But the human rights report said she emailed the school in January 2013 to say, “I can’t express the disgust I feel and honestly, I don’t know which is worse the things the boys have said and done or the way it was handled.”
Grant said that the district can only “move forward and make corrections for the future.”

“Nobody’s happy about it and right now we’ve got to take a look at everything,” Brandt said. “Unfortunately, this was at the expense of a child. But anytime something comes up you learn from it, you review what you’re doing, you review policies and procedures and you educate instructors, administration and students.”


He derided people who he said want “heads to roll.”

“A high, high percentage of people in this community are not proud this happened here,” Brandt said. “Maybe we didn’t act fully, I don’t know. But we do care as humans. Everybody wants every district to be better.”

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