KASSON, Minn. - The small hamlet of Kasson is covered in purple. Purple ribbons on street signs. Purple ribbons on lamp posts. It is a sign this community is coming together, following the loss of a young life.
Thirteen-year-old Rachel Ehmke, a 7th grader, took her own life recently. Her parents, Rick and Mary Ehmke, say she was the victim of bullying. "She tried to deal with it. We thought she was dealing with it and the school thought she was dealing with it," Rick said. "Words can hurt. Words can kill," Mary added.
Fifteen miles west in an upstairs office in Rochester, Minn., Vangie Castro talks candidly about the issue the Ehmkes are bringing to the forefront. "Saying that, 'Oh maybe because we're talking more about it, more kids are committing suicide.' That's not true. Kids have been committing suicide and we just didn't talk about it," Castro told KARE 11. She is part of the Rochester Diversity Council and she's also on Governor Dayton's task force on bullying.
Parents have been asking Castro what they should do if their child's being bullied. She says the first step is to contact the school or the school district. She also explains that if that contact doesn't amount to any help, feel free to contact the state's Department of Education, a human rights commission, and if the problems are serious enough, your local police department.
Castro says PACER and Stopbullying.gov have a number of very helpful resources.
"It's important that they have proof, some sort of form of proof, like this has happened on this day with this student and I have other students that can back me up on it," Castro said. She also noted that bullying is prevalent and keeping it all inside perpetuates it. "I think the silence can be deafening and harmful. If you saw somebody steal something or vandalize something, you would report it; you would say something, right? Well, bullying is kind of the same thing."
The Rochester Post Bulletin, realizing this is a community wide concern, did something they haven't done in 20 years. They put an editorial on the front page of the paper, with the bold headline: "PLEASE CAN WE STOP IT?"
"The goal was to grab people's attention, say something's happening in our schools that is profoundly important. Its life or death for our kids," Managing Editor Jay Furst told KARE 11.
In Austin, Danielle Borgerson-Nesvold says she's glad to see the community stepping up. Two years ago, she started Community Against Bullying (CAB) after learning her son was bullied. Last week, Rachel Ehmke's sister reached out to her group, addressing members in their bi-monthly meeting.
"When you hear of a 13-year-old, and my child's 12, it was really heart wrenching because you think about what drove her to do it. She must have been in so much pain that she just couldn't... she didn't want to deal with life anymore," Borgerson-Nesvold said, holding back tears.
Nesvold addresses bullying head-on every day; often answering Facebook questions from people from every corner of the country. Recently, she's been getting requests for a community action plan that will help others start CAB groups. Those requests have come in from local communities and from places as far away as Pennsylvania and Idaho.
"It only works if you have the entire community. So this means talk to everybody; the mayor, the city council members, the school board, and churches," Borgerson-Nesvold explained.
The conversation has begun in Southern Minnesota, where almost 1,000 people have signed up for a "Walk for Rachel." It'll be held on May 19 in Austin and money raised will be used to fight bullying.
Rachel Ehmke's parents have broken the bullying chain of silence. "We found a card just last night that says 'I'm alright equals I wish I could tell you how I really felt," they concluded.
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