A horror story

by Pete Talbot

Five middle school suicides in the past year. Twenty attempted suicides. In a town of less than a thousand. In a school of fewer than 160.

This is criminal negligence.

It happened in Poplar, Montana, and the story is in today’s paper. The gist of the piece was about a principal who singled out kids at a student assembly for getting Fs. If true, well, that’s pretty sad.

But that’s not really the story. Kids as young as ten are taking their own lives out of desperation. It’s an unbroken cycle of poverty and hopelessness; while the rest of us turn a blind eye.

Here’s the best link I could find at the Great Falls Tribune but the suicides are buried in the story. The online Lee Newspapers have no mention of the suicides. (It was reported in the print edition of the Missoulian.) That’s unconscionable. It should have been the lead story on every newscast and in every newspaper across the state … and it should have happened months ago.

Where else should the blame lie? Our state and national governments, for sure. Our disparate education system. Society as a whole. The list goes on.

Can you imagine the outcry if this had happened at Washington Middle School in Missoula? No expense would be spared. Every expert in the region, every anti-suicide program that’s ever been conceived, would be employed to prevent this from happening.

But it happened in Poplar on the Fort Peck Reservation where, apparently, kids aren’t quite as valuable.

We should all be ashamed and make sure this doesn’t happen again on this reservation or any other school, anywhere.

  1. Pete, I can not believe this story, and I can not believe we haven’t heard about it. Beyond horrifying.

    And you are so right – if that many kids killed themselves or tried to kill themselves over several years, yet alone just one, here in Missoula or any other white community in the state, there’d be war….yet this gets a story only warranted for the Great Falls Tribune? And at that, a secondary mention?

    Every paper in the state should be printing this.

    Some serious investigation needs to go on here – and some immediate changes in order to assure protection of those kids. There’s too much at risk.

  2. Pronghorn

    This blew me clean away when I read it in the Missoulian this a.m. Anyone reading this comment from HD100–if you, too, are horrified by this story, let’s make sure we don’t send Champ Edmunds to Helena. Check out his answers at Montana Women Vote–opposed to increased state funding for domestic violence intervention and prevention. Opposed to maintaining funding for Indian Education for All. Believes that funding to address poverty issues is TOO GREAT. Montana–especially Poplar and the kids still alive there–can’t afford another Republican Scrooge like Edmunds in Helena.

  3. It must be something in their archiving – I know I’ve run into where I’ve seen it in print, yet can’t get a link – but I came across this tonight, via twitter: http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/article_2be8d476-d580-11df-8e41-001cc4c03286.html

  4. Well, I lived in Poplar for 12 years and went through a third world war with the administration over my kids. I won’t go into detail, but this doesn’t surprise me at all. I then threw 12 years intense efforts building the community infrastructure in Poplar along with my career down the rathole and went to Missoula. Missoula is better in some ways, and my son was safe, but in other ways it is far worse and not at all safe for anyone; at least one girl I know of was in fact raped in the building I worked at amidst deliberate misdirection and denial by the admin. You won’t get anywhere, though, the politics are far too corrupt and thoroughly incompetent for that. I was aware of at least two high school students in Missoula who committed suicide. Almost 60 years of that bull for me. Count me out, I’ll never set foot in that hell hole again.

    • mr benson

      I read this Monday. These two paragraphs caught my attention:

      “Fourbear, a licensed clinical social worker, said there was no single cause, but that many children on the reservation face a combination of extreme poverty and a lack of parental involvement, leaving them with nowhere to turn when faced with an overwhelming problem.

      “You combine all the issues with poverty, and all the social ills associated with poverty, and throw in the fabrics of our family, a lot of time it becomes a matter of survival,” Fourbear said”.

      “Nowhere to turn” is so sad: no parent, no sibling, no grandparent, no family friend, no church, no other adult, nowhere.

      • JC

        Well, nowhere locally in Poplar. Some people make it out of (escape) Poplar and find some help in other places. For the last 5 years I’ve spend time volunteering at a program for kids in their teens (quite a few from Poplar, and other reservations) who’ve managed to get some help here in Missoula. But that’s just a few, and the problem really is overwhelming and their stories tear at my heart. And then when they say they want to (or have to) go home…

        Am I detecting a soft spot, Mr. B?

  5. One other thing should be said – in the late 80s and early 90s when I was at war with Poplar school admin, there was a policy the supe called “Program of Excellence.” This program was a perfect example of grade inflation, where teachers are pressured into giving As to make the school look good. You couldn’t get standardized testing during those years, because that would have pegged the actual level of achievement for what it was. I went around and around with that school over such things, actually a great deal worse issues encompassing embezzlement, extortion, really a wide range of trouble, but all to no avail. The supe was given a grand party and hero’s bon voyage, but this illustrates most aptly the end results of grade inflation, which is not a legit program. Somewhere down the road, someone is left holding the bag and someone else pays the price. But don’t think there’s less trouble in Missoula, far from that, they’re just a good deal better at concealing the trouble that they make.

  6. Chuck

    Please hold Schweitzer , his administration and Juneau accountable for their failure to perform. Does anyone think that life on the reservation has gotten better?

    • petetalbot

      I’m certainly not going to hold Juneau accountable. As an Indian woman and an educator who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, I’m sure she’s aware of the problems facing reservation schools. I know she is advancing programs to address Indian education issues. She’s also been state superintendent for less than two years — not much time to turn around decades of poverty and desperation associated with Montana reservations.

      Still, I await her response to this latest particular crisis.

      • JC

        Why can’t we hold her accountable? That’s her job. We don’t have to blame her. But this statement from her in the article you link to above is rather disheartening:

        “State Superintendent of Schools Denise Juneau said her office had received several calls after the incident. She said it was disappointing to hear, but it is not something that OPI can handle as it is a local issue. Her office has been referring callers to other resources where they can voice their opinions.

        “Sometimes those are difficult issues,” she said.”

        She should step up and provide some leadership here.

  7. Chuck

    I worked with Nancy Keenan at OPI on very specific local issues where Nancy took the lead and HELPED the local school board. The OPI is the lead expert and authority on schools and have all of the resources. They can do plenty and should have been for 2 years.

  8. Erin

    While I agree that this issue should not be buried, there is a very important reason that stories like this rarely get published, they are dangerous to those pondering the act. I’m a social worker and involved in both the Missoula and Ravalli County suicide prevention coalitions, who reach out to media specifically to educate them on the implications of running stories like this. The issues do need brought to light, but headlining articles almost ALWAYS lead to more deaths, as seen with our own Sentinel High School several years back.

  9. It would be most unfair to blame these acts on the grade incident, which was not a public calling out, nor were these the children who committed suicide. Very shallow, though educational irresponsibility is the cause of the chaos in Poplar schools and the suicides. Nancy Kennan would be of NO help, the state is really run by a criminal cabal up to its neck in insurance fraud and other nasties. But I was forced to toss 12 years intense efforts in building up Poplar just so I could get my own son out of the middle school where he was NOT safe and to Missoula. Yes, in Missoula he was safe, but the admin in Missoula is really of the same ilk, thoroughly treacherous, arrogant, incompetent, and you aren’t hearing the correct story there, either. A child was raped there, among a series of related incidents, and it was preventable for the same reaons. If think you know more about Montana schools, try this…

    1956 : (Sister) Started First grade in Three Forks (you (that’s me, Alan) started 1954 in Billings southside, second grade Drummond 1955-6, third Three Forks, 1957, 3 weeks in coma after ambush and beating by principal’s older son, Logan 1957, Toston 1958, finished 3rd in Drummond 1958)
    1957 : Two days in First grade in Logan (sister)
    1957 : Finished first grade in Emerson Bozeman
    1957 : Started Second Grade in Billings brand new school only two weeks.
    1957 : Bozeman Second grade Longfellow School
    1958 : Bozeman Second grade Whitakers (sp?) until early Feb. (You had trouble with the principle as your fourth grade teacher and it transferred her hate to me in second grade and she tried to pull all sorts of terrible things and was using my teacher who had a break down begging Mom to get me out of that school as there was nothing she knew how to do to protect me or herself.) SOOOO
    1958 : I finished Second grade in Superior. Meantime you moved to Toston and finished the fourth grade either in Toston or in Townsend I don’t know. Then Mom and Dad and you of course moved back to Bearmouth for our second time.
    1958 : Fall I started & finished third grade at Drummond…you would have been 5th.
    1959 : Started and finished fourth grade at Drummond you would have been 6th
    1960 : Started 5th grade in Drummond and you would have been 7th.
    1961 : Moved to Missoula on my 11th birthday so easy to remember it was Feb. So we both attended Central and finished the 5th and 7th grades respectfully.
    1961 : Started 6th grade at Emerson a brand new school in Missoula. You would have been in the 8th.
    1962 : We moved back to Bozeman and I went to Emerson to finish the 6th grade out. You were in Wilson Junior High.
    1962 : I joined you at Wilson for my 7th grade and you finished your 9th too.
    1963 : I started the 8th grade at Wilson…you were in the 10th.
    1963 : Late Fall just prior to Thanksgiving or right near it we moved to Toston…my first time and I finished 8th grade at Toston. You went to Townsend for the 10th and freshmen year via school bus.
    1964 : We both went to Townsend high school. My freshmen year and your junior year and we both finished those years.
    1965 : You started Bozeman your senior year…and I rode the train on to Livingston for the start of my sophomore year in Livingston. After 6 weeks Mom found an apartment in Bozeman on Church Street and we moved in with her…you continued through your senior year at Bozeman High and I transferred in for the remainder of my sophomore year. You graduated but I was pulled a week early…but basically finished in Bozeman just had trouble with a few of the teachers getting the picture and their cooperation.
    1966 : I started and finished my junior year of high school at Livingstons old high school….after we moved to Livingston when Dad was promoted into a management position.
    1967 : I started my senior year at Livingstons new high school. You started your freshman year at MSU.
    1968 : I went to Polson to finish my Senior Year and graduate from High School. You joined the Army earlier this year, Dad died while on leave before transfer to Vietnam.

  10. One last thing, this prompted me to add a chapter to my statistics theorem, that summarized my experiences with Montana Schools. If you have spare time, you’re welcome to read it – just skip all the math stuff and click the bottom left link in the navigator frame on the left – it’s called “Jesus and the Evolution of Asperger’s.” You might find it interesting, pretty short, but has a story to tell, including the rape of a friend’s daughter in Missoula. I left out the cocaine racket. Anyway, have a great millenium…

    • I’ve since removed the Asperger’s section, not the right place. But one point I’d like to restate about Missoula – my son managed to get thru high school there, though the administration was ever incompetent, quite deliberately creating conditions for the rape and a series of similar incidents. My son was safe, too, but never did we get square dealings on the fact that he was autistic, and though voc rehab promised to help him get a job or enrolled at UM, they were not at all sincere. They did try to get him a job at this little sweatshop next to the DOJ called RDD, but I’d found out by then that they were running a crack and other drug racket there. Ok, I’ve been called a “nut” for saying things like that, but I’m really quite sane and competent with a BA and MS, magna cum-laude, from MSU, nor did I imagine this. But after studying law enforcement tactics, I’d have to say that this is not what you would call a typical racket, the RDD managers are somehow tied to law enforcement and are running what is called a reverse sting operation – they do indeed supply drugs and try to coerce (mostly young) people into using or buying them, then they confiscate property and split profits. Now, I’ve never used drugs and am frankly very offended by what I observed there, but how about Missoula’s brand of services for an autistic child? Crank them full of crack and throw them into the pot. Good job. While the social problems of the reservations are real enough, I have to say that Missoula is the stink hole of stink holes that may be found from one end of the universe to the other… and, scientifically, by the way, vaccines do cause autism, you’d have to be a half wit not to know that. So RDD is “Research Data Design?” Bullshit. Make those slimy little punks pay for 8 years of university education (Montana no longer qualifies), study 18 hrs every day, do 3 years of graduate research with stellar performance in inferential statistics, then they can say that they’ve done some honest work.

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