Almost two years ago, a Minnesota federal court sentenced Brandon Bjerknes, the former assistant principal of Bemidji Middle School, to twenty-five years in prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of production of child pornography and one count of attempted coercion and enticement of a minor. The criminal complaint alleged that Bjerknes deceived and sexually exploited and pressured more than fifty-five children online for years—many of whom were students at the school where he worked. Bjerknes is currently appealing his conviction. As he fights to get out of prison, some of his victims are still fighting to put back the pieces of their lives.
On January 13, 2020, two such minor victims and their parents filed a civil rights lawsuit against Bemidji Area Schools, Independent School District 31, challenging the school’s consistent failures to discover and address Bjerknes’s criminal behavior, as well as the school’s failure to support the victims in the aftermath.
This civil complaint alleges that the former assistant principal targeted his victims based on information he learned through his position at the middle school and his former work as an elementary school teacher. Bjerknes socialized with minor girls daily, often behind closed doors. He charged and fixed their cell phones, which gave him the opportunity to obtain their social media handles, which he later targeted while posing as an underage boy. This is not the first time Bemidji faculty has sexually abused students. Former gym teacher John Wangberg committed suicide after he was accused of sexually abusing a student at Central Elementary School and after law enforcement discovered child pornography on his work computer.
According to the newly-filed complaint, Bemidji Middle School should have discovered Bjerknes’s illegal behavior because he used his school-issued devices and often engaged in these online interactions during school hours. Bemidji District policies represent that the school will monitor online activity and school computers to protect against unacceptable behavior by faculty or students. The complaint alleges that the school failed to effectuate the district’s own policies.
The school further ignored and failed to investigate concerns expressed by one plaintiff’s parents when they informed the school that they discovered their daughter was being preyed upon online. Information from these same parents ultimately led to the criminal investigation into, and eventual incarceration, of Bjerknes. Had the school acted on their warnings, the complaint alleges, many more children could have been spared the abuse.
Following Bjerknes’s arrest, the plaintiffs and other victims continued to suffer at the hands of the administration and their peers. The district did not offer appropriate support, and it failed to adequately address the situation with the families or the community. Gossip and misinformation spread, and the victims were blamed by their peers for the abuse and Bjerknes’s arrest. They withdrew further from social life, experienced severe absenteeism and tardiness, and their grades and mental health suffered. The complaint alleges the District did not properly accommodate victims during this time. The District also, the complaint alleges, failed to implement the types of policies, practices, and training needed to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
“Children have the right to a safe and healthy learning environment at school, and parents have the right to expect that schools will protect their children against sexual assault perpetrated by administrators using school devices during school hours,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney Rebekah L. Bailey from Nichols Kaster, PLLP. “In bringing this lawsuit, these families seek to cause real structural change in Bemidji schools so that no more children must endure what theirs have.”
The complaint alleges three counts of negligence, violations of the plaintiffs’ right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Sex Discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The plaintiffs are represented by Rebekah L. Bailey, Matthew H. Morgan, and Nicole J. Schladt of Nichols Kaster, PLLP. The case is Jane Doe 1, et al. v. Independent School District 31, case number 04-CV-151 and is filed in Minnesota’s Ninth Judicial District Court.