Allegations that bullying played a role in an Oelwein teenager’s suicide prompts family and school leaders to speak out.
On Tuesday, the father of Dustin VanLaningham and the superintendent of the Oelwein school district cleared up rumors surrounding the 17-year-old’s death.
The rumors started on Facebook over the weekend. Comments circulated on a memorial page started for Dustin. The posts claimed Dustin was repeatedly harassed and picked on by other students.
But Superintendent Steve Westerberg says no one — not Dustin, his family, friends, or staff — ever reported him being bullied.
“Any time you lose a student, it’s traumatic for everyone,” Westerberg said, “and certainly Dustin’s death hit everyone very, very hard.”
Westerberg said the school started its crisis protocol Sunday night after learning of Dustin’s passing. Counselors met several times with students on Monday at Oelwein High School. Then on Tuesday, Westerburg and staff learned about the Facebook page and bullying accusations. Students even tried to organize a protest style “sit-in” to bring awareness to bullying at the school.
Westerberg said he and other administrators acted quickly. They decided to focus on these accusations Tuesday with grief counselors. Westerberg said the counselors offered students an opportunity to talk about bullying in private or small groups.
Westerberg said Dustin’s father, Chris VanLaningham, also contacted to the school interested in addressing students about the issue. He did so Tuesday morning in what Westerburg called, “a very emotional letter.”
“He felt very motivated by [the Facebook page],” Westerburg said. “He wanted to set the record straight, and came in early this morning and wrote out a letter to share with students and staff.”
In the letter to the school’s staff, students and administration, Dustin’s father wrote:
“Pointing fingers at any one individual does not bring him back nor will it solve the underlying issues. Dustin did have teachers who cared enough about him and would do what they could to help him.”
Close friends also said bullying played only a small role in the 17-year-old’s suicide. Close friend Joe Benter said there were other “problems” Dustin dealt with for many years. Regardless, Benter said Dustin always maintained a warm personality and friendly disposition.
“Dustin would be explained as a being a very goofy person who always managed to put a smile on your face,” said Benter.
Family and friends paid tribute to Dustin with a march and ride through the downtown area and around the high school Tuesday night. They signed posters and honked horns yelling out “Rest in Peace Dustin.”
“I’ll miss him just him in general,” Benter said. “His presence, he’d put a positive vibe in a room filled with down people.”
As for why the accusations of bullying arose in the first place, Westerburg said it’s difficult to speculate. But he says bullying is an issue many people have faced in their lives, and whenever someone is lost in such a tragic way, people want to make sense of the tragedy.
“I think everyone has experienced bullying at some level,” Westerburg said. “I think people can relate to some situation where they’ve been bullied.”