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​‘A child can only take so much’

News | February 26th, 2018

Jackie Charbonneau and her son, Christopher L. Thumb, who is also pictured with two black eyes, and a split lip on cell phone - photograph by C.S. HagenFARGO – Christopher L. Thumb is a quiet boy, enjoys throwing a football with his siblings, listens to powwow music. New to Fargo after moving from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Reservation at 15, he entered his freshman year at North High School last August.

First week, the bullying began. He was called names, his computer was frequently unplugged, people made fun of him, but no physical violence occurred until February 12. Names of others involved have been withheld due to juvenile status.

Thumb has hearing problems and is a special needs student, according to his mother, Jackie Charbonneau. The bullying climaxed on February 12, after he made a joke on a Facebook post from a female classmate saying Fargo boys do not know how to treat girls with respect. A classmate – the one he says bullied him – challenged him to a fight.

Thinking he was entering the boy’s junior varsity locker room at North High School to end six months of bullying with one classmate, Thumb, with a little wrestling knowledge, was surprised to see his challenger filming with a cell phone, and another challenger step up while taking off his sweater.

“I was looking for him,” Thumb said. “But he wasn’t in there yet, and then he came in with his friend. Then I got nervous.”

Snapshot of video footage of the Fargo North fight

“He was tricked when he walked into the locker room,” Charbonneau said. “He thought he was going in to fight somebody else, but found a locker room filled with boys and one girl.”

The first fight occurred on a Monday, around 9am, during class time. A second fight followed before he could recover, when a new challenger – another classmate – attacked.

The first fight was considered a draw, Thumb said. At least four students filmed the fight. Some jumped up and down laughing when a good punch was thrown. In the video, Thumb’s original challenger pushed him back into the fight when Thumb was forced nearly to the wall.

A video of the altercation was posted by the attackers in Facebook, and has been altered. It begins with the second fight first, shifts into slow motion and is overlaid with a song by Kendrick Lamar called “M.A.A.D. City.” Shortly after the video begins, the words: “N*ggas think sh*t swear” with a snorting emoji appears.

Second snapshot of video from a different fight on the same day

Thumb was hit 50 or more times, suffered two black eyes, a split lip, and later was discovered to have a concussion.

“I couldn’t watch it right off the bat,” Thumb’s grandmother and now legal guardian, Phyllis Herman, said. “I took off screaming.”

Thumb’s primary diagnostics medical report, performed on February 21, said he suffered a concussion without loss of consciousness, and was experiencing trauma, headaches, fatigue, and nausea.

“Christopher’s mother was not contacted about this incident until days later,” according to the medical report from South University Pediatrics. “When Chris returned home after school he went right to his room and slept for a few hours. After he woke up he told his mother that he got into a fight, but did not tell her the extent of the attack… He has not returned to school since the incident as they [parents and grandmother] are concerned for his safety.”

Immediately after the fight, Thumb went back to class. His eyes swelled, became discolored, and he said pain initially came from both sides of his head. Two teachers asked him what happened. Afraid of getting into trouble, he lied and said he had been in a wrestling match with his cousin.

When he returned home after school, he went straight to his bedroom to sleep, he said. A few hours later his mother had to shake her son to wake up, which was unusual as Thumb is a light sleeper, she said. And then Thumb admitted to his mother he had been in a fight.

“I didn’t know my baby got hit that many times in the head,” Charbonneau said.

Later, the two high school attackers apologized, saying that they wouldn’t have fought him if they had known he had mental health issues, Thumb said.

“Who talked to these students?” Charbonneau said. “My son came up to me and asked me, he says, ‘Mom, do I have a mental problem?’”

Such information is considered confidential and is protected by HIPAA laws (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996). Charbonneau said the school administration informed her the fight was gang-related, or a gang initiation, which she said was preposterous.

“Even if it was a gang, why are they allowing a gang to be in school?” Charbonneau said. “I want to press charges against these boys. They’re animals, and I don’t know what kind of parents they have.”

Although two teachers noticed Thumb’s injuries, no one reported anything to Charbonneau, to the principal’s office, or to police, Charbonneau said.

“The principal pretty much said my son was retarded for walking into that fight. How many staff saw my kid with black eyes and did nothing?”

Charbonneau works the night shift and her husband drives for a local company.

“It’s got me thinking, ‘Are we safe here?’” grandmother Phyllis Herman said. Her family is registered with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. The Greywind family and James Kelly Grant, killed in June 2017 after a fistfight outside the HoDo, were also registered members of the same tribe.

“I’ve heard things about Fargo, but I didn’t think it would hit so close to home,” Herman said.

Jackie Charbonneau and Christopher L. Thumb's grandmother, Phyllis Herman, showing video - photograph by C.S. Hagen

Several of the boys involved and Thumb were suspended from school, Charbonneau said. Police told her that all three of the boys would face assault charges, and then learned the charges were dropped to disorderly conduct.

Fargo Police Crime Prevention and Public Information Officer Jessica Schindeldecker would not confirm if charges are pending on any of the individuals involved because of the case’s juvenile status.

During one meeting the school principal, Andy Dahlen, scolded her son, saying that he could have hurt his opponent’s head on the sink, Charbonneau said.

petition named “Justice for C.T.: Hold FNHS Principal Andy Dahlen Accountable for Negligence and Supporting Hate crimes Against Native American Child with Disabilities,” started by Kathryn Fink to oust Dahlen for displaying “complete disdain and negligence to the victim” and for allegedly breaking HIPPA laws, has been started online. With a goal of reaching 2,000 supporters, 46 had signed by Monday morning.

“This petition is calling for the public to participate in demanding the resignation of Principal Andy Dahlen of Fargo North High School, as well as a public apology by all participating negligent staff of the high school to the victim of this crime,” Fink wrote. “This petition calls for the public to demand that the students participating in this crime be held accountable – take sensitivity training, and that the Fargo Police Department take reports of victims of hate crimes in a timely matter.”

Fink, from Grand Forks, said she saw the video and immediately contacted Thumb’s family and friends. The ACLU has been notified, and she plans to attend a school board meeting in March with enough signatures to demand Dahlen’s resignation.

“This story broke my heart,” Fink said. “I needed to do something with support and togetherness with C.T.'s family and friends. I have learning disabilities, I worked with children with a variety of disabilities, I have worked with Native families throughout my life, and I think there is severe injustice that these families face every day.”

Ruth Buffalo, who is on Fargo’s Native American Commission, stated the commission is holding off on an official statement at this time, but that she is involved with supporting the family. She agreed that bullying in the Fargo/Moorhead area is a problem.

“It seems to be a common theme in the Fargo/Moorhead area,” Buffalo said. “There is bullying occurring to our children. The Fargo Indian Education and Moorhead Indian Education, they’re doing the best they can within their scope, trying to fill the void of not having a Native American center.”

The Fargo/West Fargo Indian Education Program is a little-known committee that strives to help with Native and cultural issues in the area.

Fargo Police Department Cultural Liaison Officer Vince Kempf will begin an investigation, Buffalo said.

“It’s really disturbing, and we don’t know if it was racially motivated, but it is still wrong for kids to do that to one another. The crowd that was in that locker room, them recording it, it all seemed pretty planned.”

“The negligence of the Fargo North High School Administration is setting a precedent that bullying is okay,” a person named Vincent G., from North Dakota, wrote in the petition’s comment section. “There is absolutely no reason for a child to be afraid to go to school or to have to endure physical trauma while under the care of that school’s administrators and educators.”

Another person, named as Nan T., also from North Dakota wrote: “No child, red, yellow, black, or white should worry about being bullied, and never should a child be kicked out of school for protecting themselves from getting hit.”

Even if the school administration offers compensation for her losses from missing work, expels the attackers for at least one year, and provides transportation, she’s not sure if she would send her son back to North High, said Jackie Charbonneau. Thumb is scared and so is his family.

Dahlen was contacted for comment, but did not reply. Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Schatz was also contacted for comment, and his office issued a statement pertaining to the incident.

“On February 12, two student fights occurred at North High School during the school day,” the superintendent’s office said in a press release. “Administration became aware of the fights and investigated. Administration worked with the students and parents/guardians involved and the students faced disciplinary actions. Due to student privacy laws, no further details are able to be shared.”

Onlookers and school staff are just as guilty as the attackers, Charbonneau said. In the past, when her son was late for class, she always received a telephone call, but no one called her on February 12, the day she said her son was tricked into a beating.

“I should have been notified any way you look at it,” she said. Her son missed English class, the period scheduled during the fight.

“There shouldn’t be any bullying, period,” Charbonneau said. “Look at all these school shootings. A child can only take so much. I just want justice for my son. I don’t want it to happen to another mama.”

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