Fifth-Graders Pledge to Look Out for Bullied Classmate with Special Needs

Five Minnesota boys took it upon themselves to protect a classmate who was picked on for his learning disability

Photo: Boyd Huppert/KARE

Fifth-graders aren’t exactly known for their angelic behavior, but five Minnesota boys have taken it upon themselves to stand up to one classmate’s bullies.

When Jack Pemble, Jake Burgess, Gus Gartzke, Tyler Jones and Landon Kopischke of Franklin Elementary School in Mankato, Minnesota, noticed that James Willmert, who has a learning disability, was being picked on, they decided to take him under their wing.

“They were, like, using him and taking advantage of him,” Burgess tells Minneapolis’ KARE 11 News.

“Because he’s easier to pick on, and it’s just not right,” Pemble adds.

Now, Willmert has friends to sit with at lunch, play with at recess and even help him tie his shoes and open tricky containers.

“He used to not want to go out for recess or anything, it would be a struggle, and now he can barely eat his lunch to get outside to play with those guys,” Willmert’s mom Margi says. “They’re changing him. We just got a basketball hoop last week because he now loves basketball.”

When the boys found out that Willmert didn’t have any video games, they set out to right this egregious wrong. They pooled their money and delivered a video game console and a few games to his house; it was the first time James had ever had friends from school come play at his house.

“Every one of them was smiling like crazy,” Margi says. “I’ll never forget it. Never.”

At the end of this school year, the school district honored the boys with a “Spirit of Youth” award, for which they were nominated by their teacher, Mallory Howk.

“It really kind of makes you proud to be their teacher,” Howk says.

But the boys didn’t do it for the recognition, they say.

“He’s an awesome kid to hang out with,” Burgess says.

The feeling is mutual: According to Willmert, “All these guys are the best friends anybody could ask for.”

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