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Anti-bullying grassroots group organizes in Farmington

Cathy Katzenberger, of Farmington, founded the anti-bullying parent group “It Takes a Village” with 200 members. The group meets twice a month to find solutions to reduce incidents of bullying in Farmington Public Schools. Kara Hildreth / Contributor

Tiger mom Cathy Katzenberger is determined to fight against bullying in schools with peaceful, open discussion and collaborative listening. She seeks greater understanding to solutions that can reduce bullying incidents in Farmington schools.

How does she plan on accomplishing this? By founding the grassroots parents group called "It Takes a Village" that connects on Facebook with more than 200 parent members currently.

As a mother of three children, Katzenberger has witnessed how bullying has negatively affected her children's life at school and home.

After launching "It Takes a Village," she has heard many personal stories about bullying.

Two times in the past year, Katzenberger has spoken at Farmington School Board meetings. She talked about how her daughter was bullied on a school bus and that she was harassed and bullied by a large group of students outside on the evening of the homecoming football game.

Shortly after this incident, she met with a small group of parents to talk about bullying at a coffee shop in Rosemount with seven concerned parents.

Superintendent listens

The parent group was invited to speak with Farmington District Superintendent Jay Haugen on Dec. 11 at Farmington High School. The room was filled with concerned parents and youth of all ages who spoke about bullying incidents in the schools.

The informal listening session was scheduled for one hour but lasted more than two and a half hours.

"Jay Haugen was very interested in hearing the stories, and parents shared comments and concerns and bullying experiences," Katzenberger said. "He listened and he was compassionate and I felt like he was really listening — he really felt the sadness and pain these kids have gone through."

Haugen will meet with his administrative team to discuss the broader issue of bullying.

Farmington Public Schools offer many character education programs in elementary and throughout middle school. Katzenberger thinks more methods can be taught in schools to prevent young people from becoming bullies.

"I wanted to open up conversation because I don't think it is talked about enough," she said.

Fight to aid youth, save the bullies

For years as a parent, she would drop the topic because she agreed with the theory how bullying happens in all schools across the nation and will always exist as a social problem.

But now Katzenberger thinks this mindset of giving up is harmful and not protecting youth. That is not a part of her DNA, she said. She wants to fight for children who are bullies and children who become bullies so Farmington schools don't see violence, suicide or death that occurs after warning signs of ongoing bullying.

"They are trying to prevent it (bullying) but it is obviously not working," she said. "There is a way, in my opinion, that we can start teaching kids at a very early age about compassion and empathy because when someone is hurting, they need to be able to feel like they can help that person."

Tiger mom

As a stay-at-home mother who comes across as a mild-mannered woman, Katzenberger said she embodies a Tiger mom who is propelled to fight for children who are bullies and those being harassed at school.

But Katzenberger is determined to fight against bullying by using communication. She is looking for new ideas to seek better understanding on how to reduce bullying in the elementary, middle and high schools.

"Even though my first instinct is to be the Tiger mom, I know from my experience with my own children that if I am yelling, I know they are not listening," she said.

It Takes a Village invites anyone to attend one of two monthly meetings. The group meets at 7 p.m. the first Wednesday and 10 a.m. the second Saturday of the month at Farmington Public Library.

Katzenberger is happy the school district is working alongside the group to make positive change to help reduce bullying in schools and on the bus.

Doing research on bullying, she said many anti-bullying groups have formed across the country. Katzenberger feels optimistic changes can take place within the school district. She thinks the anti-bullying policy needs to be updated and there can be an exploration of ways to address prevention methods in schools.

"It is amazing how it (bullying) affects youth for years and we don't want to see that baggage — it is not fair and it shouldn't happen,," she said. "We don't want to punish the perpetrators. We want to help them, and it is not OK if bullying is taking the lives of youth across the country."

Mother shares daughter's story

Every parent wishes to see their children reach their potential with academics and social circles.

Cathy Katzenberger said her daughter's life has been negatively impacted by ongoing bullying encountered in school and on the bus.

Today, Mady Katzenberger, 13, attends Gateway Academy. She also takes classes at Dodge Middle School. She used to attend Boeckman Middle School.

After enduring bullying in schools for years, Katzenberger said her daughter has suffered with her mental health.

"Mady is a very dramatic person and I want my children to be who they are," she said. She admits her daughter is not a conforming student.

For years, Mady was bullied at school, Katzenberger said.

"I told her to walk it off and 'you will be OK' when my daughter was younger, and so she had stopped telling me she was being bullied because she saw how no one everyone did anything," Katzenberger said.

After the Farmington homecoming football game this year, Mady suffered a mental breakdown after more than 40 students surrounded her in a cramped area and were harassing her, calling her names that ended in violence.

At the time, Katzenberger was working concessions and was attending the game with her husband and family. A mother she knew from Girl Scouts told Katzenberger that Mady was having a mental breakdown. Students were teasing and violently taunting her.

When she texted her daughter, she did not get a response. That was when Mady was encircled by the group of middle school youth.

"I found her huddled and holding her head in her hands on the ground, and she was shaking and saying 'I just want to die,'" Katzenberger said.

The incident took place after Mady was trying to console a friend who was being bullied and he began crying. She told him it was OK to cry when the group began teasing him.

"She said please leave him alone and she told them she would pay them money if they left him alone, and she did pay them money to leave him alone," Katzenberger said.

Then the group began bullying and shoving Mady. This violence led to an assault, Katzenberger said.

After that evening, Katzenberger made several phone calls to the school. The school district did respond right away. Eventually, the school resolved the situation by talking with the students responsible for the bullying.

Mady spent 10 days in the hospital this year after talks of suicide.

"Her depression is so severe that it caused her to start having audio and visual hallucinations," Katzenberger said. "She was terrified because she could not close her eyes and sleep and she heard things in her head."

Her daughter's hospital psychiatrist ordered the school to find a way to stop the bullying and violence.

When asked why she did not take her daughter out of the school, Katzenberger said this is not the right response. She explained this action is not the right way to help her daughter cope or help other students who battle bullying.

Katzenberger and It Takes a Village seeks to partner with schools and create better responses to bullying incidents. Since the launch of the group, Katzenberger said she feels empowered with support and response from parents.

"I am hoping within a year that we can get something concrete with changes and I know we want to update the district's bullying policy," Katzenberger said. "I know if in the end we can make progress, then it will help her because she knows that we are fighting for her and that kids who are her friends like her."