BEMIDJI -- The families of two victims who were preyed on by former Bemidji Middle School Principal Brandon Bjerknes are suing the school district, saying it turned a blind eye to the situation and tolerated an environment where the abuse could exist.
The complaint in the lawsuit, which is more than 30 pages long, was signed Dec. 19, and asks for a judgement of no less than $75,000. Bjerknes, 37, preyed on students in the school district using a fake social media persona, known as Brett Larson, until he was arrested in March 2017.
"Bjerknes used personal information that he obtained by virtue of his assistant principal position and elementary school teaching position to lure victims, learn their interests, gain their trust, capitalize on their vulnerabilities and sexually exploit minors," the complaint said.
Among other offenses, the complaint said Bjerknes "pressured and dared children," to send him sexual photos of themselves and that he also dared minors to watch "sexually explicit content" of him. There were "at least" 55 victims according to the complaint, and the communication between Bjerknes and the victims totaled more than 15,000 pages.
The situation has had alarming ramifications for the victims and their families. In fact, the complaint said some of the victims “attempted suicide or engaged in self harm or dangerous conduct” as a result of their interactions with Bjerknes and the subsequent aftermath.
Bjerknes was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison on Feb. 7, 2018.
The complaint makes the argument that the district was lackluster in its efforts to prevent the abuse from happening, and that it was sluggish, at best, to respond to the situation once it was brought to light.
The situation first started coming to light several years ago, the complaint said. The parent of one of the victims noticed explicit material on her daughter’s phone in late August or early September of 2016. The parent, who suspected an adult was sending the explicit material, spoke to officials at the school, but the officials never seemed to open an investigation into the situation, the complaint said. Bjerknes was arrested roughly six months later since the parent gave the same information to law enforcement officials. Earlier in the complaint, it said the school district “ignored” the report from the parent.
There were also reports that Bjerknes’ behavior escalated beyond the confines of social media and manifested itself in direct contact with students. One parent reported that Bjerknes “inappropriately grabbed his daughter’s butt,” according to the complaint. The document subsequently said that the district “took no meaningful action” in regard to the situation.
The complaint also makes the argument that the school district not only failed to prevent Bjerknes’ abuse, but that it actively made the situation more difficult for the victims and their families in the aftermath of Bjerknes’ arrest.
“(The) defendant’s lack of leadership during this time led to inaccurate rumors and caused minor victims and their parents to be harrassed, bullied, and revictimized at the hands of other students, parents, administration and faculty,” the complaint said.
For example, the school district allegedly penalized the victims “for absences related to recovering from the trauma of their exploitation” according to the complaint.
The parents of one of the victims tried reaching out to senior staff members of the district, but allegedly only received insufficient responses. The staff allegedly failed to email them back after a parent repeatedly tried to connect with the staff. In another situation, a senior member of the middle school allegedly indicated they should stop talking about the situation so it would go away, the complaint said.
The district also allegedly indicated at one point that it would pay for one of the victim’s services at North Homes Children and Family Services, but “later refused to pay,” according to the complaint.
The complaint does not name either the students or their parents. However, the complaint does say that both were students of Bemidji Middle School and that they are now high school students in the ISD31 School District.
Superintendent Tim Lutz, who was not employed with Bemidji Area Schools at the time Bjerknes was arrested, said the district has received notification of the lawsuit and that school administrators have been in touch with their legal representation. He said he could not comment further on the situation at this time. The attorney representing the district could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit names several staff members at the district throughout the narrative. However, it only lists the district itself as the actual defendant.
The lawsuit regarding Bjerknes’ victims is not the first time Bemidji Area Schools has been sued for the sexual impropriety of a staff member. In 2013, several parties sued the district in the case of John Wangberg, a former teacher who allegedly sexually abused students several years earlier.
The complaint in the recent lawsuit says that the district failed "to implement appropriate training procedures following the Wangberg incident." It also said the school district admitted that it “did not monitor Internet use despite written representations that it would.”
"These failures allowed Bjerknes to exploit minors at Bemidji Middle School for more than three years and created a serious risk of sex discrimination and assault," the complaint said, in part.