Greenway seeks safer campus

Amid the threat of a harassment-and- discrimination lawsuit and the pall cast by a former student's suicide, Greenway High School began a new school year last week. The school has a new principal and a renewed emphasis on providing a safe climate...

Greenway anti-bullying protest. Photos courtesy of Angie Baratto

Amid the threat of a harassment-and-

discrimination lawsuit and the pall cast by a former student’s suicide, Greenway High School began a new school year last week.

The school has a new principal and a renewed emphasis on providing a safe climate on campus.

“I met with students the first day of school,” said Principal Jeff Britten, who was hired Aug. 29 from the same post at Nashwauk-Keewatin, a school where he continues to spend half-days until his replacement is hired. “I’ve had conversations about things that go on in school, all the way down to the new bullying statutes passed by the Legislature. I’ve been impressed by how the kids have received the information; they’re taking it very seriously.”

The school of roughly 700 students in Coleraine, Minn., was the subject of media attention in August. It was criticized for its response to the case of former Greenway student Isaiah Gatimu, whose death, his mother and her attorney say, was directly linked to the school’s alleged lack of response to the bullying he suffered during the 2012-13 school year.   


Gatimu’s mother, Coreen Gatimu, was left grieving Isaiah’s loss to suicide in early August. It has caused a pain that will never go away, she said.

“Every day is hard,” Coreen Gatimu said. “The fifth (of September) marked a month. My heart got ripped out of my chest again. Yesterday, I got his death certificate. It’s beyond words - the emptiness.”

Coreen Gatimu and a Minneapolis attorney, Lori Peterson, are working together on a possible civil lawsuit. They say Isaiah Gatimu, during his senior year in 2012-13, was subjected to relentless and vicious racial taunts by a small group of peers who were physically intimidating, knocking his books out of his hands and blocking him at water fountains they said were “whites-only,” and verbally degrading, calling him “nigger” and “monkey” and telling him he “should hang like his ancestors.”

Coreen Gatimu said she made two efforts to reach out to the former principal, Anne Olson, and left those conversations feeling rebuffed and helpless. She said her son’s probation officer tried to reach out to school officials, too, but with no progress. Isaiah was not perfect, Coreen Gatimu said, describing his theft of a dirt bike with a neighbor and other “hard times” during his mid-teens.

“But he always had a smile on his face,” Coreen Gatimu said. “He was a funny kid; he could be friends with anybody and never caused problems to nobody.”

The former principal has since been reassigned back to a teaching post within the school.     

The school’s superintendent cautioned against reading too much into Olson’s reassignment, saying she chose to return to teaching.

“There has been an ongoing investigation of the whole situation,” said Mark Adams, the superintendent of Greenway and Nashwauk-Keewatin schools. “No single person is going to be blamed. That’s just false information.”


Coreen and Isaiah Gatimu had filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights after she pulled her son out of the high school in January 2013 and placed him into an alternative education option, the Adult Learning Center. He finished with his diploma, but did not graduate with his class. Isaiah Gatimu and his mother were set to mediate the dispute with the school in mid-August 2014, but his suicide earlier in the month forced its postponement. It has not been rescheduled and it may never be revisited due to Isaiah’s death, though Peterson said the human rights case remains open. Coreen Gatimu said her son had been seeking financial damages through mediation that would have been directed toward his post-secondary education. He had attended Hibbing Community College in 2013-14, and was seeking to become a carpenter or tradesman.      

“This isn’t a normal situation as you can imagine,” Peterson said. “We’re researching to come up with a way to bring some justice to Isaiah’s family.”

Adams said he would not respond directly to questions about bullying claims “on advice of counsel.”

“There’s been a threat of legal action being taken,” he said.

He pointed out that Peterson has made multiple Facebook posts about the situation. Those, coupled with the previous media attention, have served to place Greenway in the eye of a bullying storm. 

“I caution people on the information’s accuracy, and the inclusivity of all the information on those types of sites,” Adams said. “I’ll always give people who advocate for unheard voices a lot of credit. At the same time, to make sweeping statements hurts the school district and the communities.”

Adams acknowledged the deaths of two other students last school year, in addition to Gatimu’s death. “These communities all lost these young people; it’s been a huge loss for any of these communities,” he said.

Peterson and Gatimu both praised the anti-bullying dialogue that has resulted from social media efforts and the media attention.


“One of the good things about it is that people are coming out of woodwork against bullying and the inaction by that school district,” Peterson said.

Adams denied that the school has been inactive in addressing bullying in the aftermath of the youth’s death.

“We have no option but to take everything we’ve learned and continue to learn and march forward,” he said. “We continue to find ways to reach kids and communicate with parents and let them know there’s always a concerned adult in their lives ready at the drop of a hat.”

Adams pointed to a survey initiative the school is undertaking, thanks to support from the Blandin Foundation and other community leadership organizations. The survey is designed to find out students’ perception of their communities.

“We know we have work to do, and this fall our schools are working with students to help us to understand deeply and fully how our children - all children - are experiencing Itasca County area communities,” said Kimberly Brink Smith, United Way of 1000 Lakes executive director, and member of the Itasca Area Student Success Core Team.

“In what ways do children and their families find support? Where do they face barriers? The success of students is an imperative of the whole community, and the Greenway school community and leaders are committed contributors to this work,” she said.

Greenway is far from alone.

In recent years, bullying has become a major national issue, with many states and school districts grappling to adopt policies following reports of student suicides related to intense bullying by peers. Nationally, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, 32 percent of students age 12-18 reported having been bullied at school. The definition of bullying used in the report included the following experiences: 21 percent were made fun of; 11 percent were pushed, shoved, tripped or spit on, 6 percent where threatened with harm, 5 percent were excluded, and 4 percent said that they were pressured to do things they did not want to do or that their property was destroyed on purpose. Earlier this year, Gov. Mark Dayton signed an anti-bullying law after nearly two years of debate.


Since Isaiah’s death, there have been additional responses from within the Itasca County communities. In one instance, Angie Baratto, a Grand Rapids photographer, asked people to gather and be photographed with their self-made anti-bullying placards one recent Saturday evening.

“I had heard about the suicide that occurred with a Greenway student, and I had a photography client who posted on Facebook her response to that,” Baratto said. “I was proud of her speaking up to her peers, telling them to knock it off and treat one another kindly. I thought, ‘Hey, let’s put something together.’”

Two dozen people, including the Greenway boys basketball team, showed up to be photographed with their signs.

Coreen Gatimu believes the bullying by peers is responsible for her son’s death. In the months after high school, he was diagnosed with depression, she said, and was taking Prozac under the direction of his family doctor. She called her son intensely private and said he refused psychiatric counseling.

“I’m thinking when a person goes through that, every word leaves a hole in you,” said Gatimu, a lifelong Iron Ranger who is a single mother to a surviving daughter. “It totally knocked down his self-worth, and he never felt like himself again.”

Meanwhile, Britten comes to Greenway with strong credentials, said Adams. The new principal has experience and expertise in special education and at-risk population students. He was the unanimous selection from among more than a dozen applicants.  

“I’m kind of the administrator who enjoys the student connection piece,” Britten said. “I want to see you - not because you got in trouble, but to have a conversation.” 

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