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Principal under fire in school stung by suicides

2010-10-12T00:00:00Z Principal under fire in school stung by suicidesThe Associated Press The Associated Press
October 12, 2010 12:00 am  • 

The principal of a predominantly Native American middle school where five children killed themselves last year is under pressure to resign after she called dozens of failing children to the gym floor during an assembly.

Dale Fourbear, director of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes education program, says Patricia Black’s decision to single out the students at Poplar Middle School could mean a setback for children trying to recover from the deaths plus 20 attempted suicides in the same year.

“I think their mental well-being is fragile right now and there could be, well, how do I put it, there could be an impact, considering what happened last year,” Fourbear said Monday.

Black, who is in her first year as principal, separated by name dozens of children in grades 5-7 who were failing at least one class from the rest of the approximately 160 students gathered at the Sept. 27 assembly.

Black said she only segregated the students at the end of the assembly so she could give them a private pep talk on how to improve their grades, and that she did not announce why she was calling them down to the floor.

“I didn’t say that these kids have Fs. I did not say that I was ashamed of them or anything like that,” Black told The Associated Press. “What I was thinking was high expectations. I really feel that these kids can all do well, that they can improve. And that’s what I talked to them about.”

Angry parents said Black needlessly shamed the children in front of their peers. Some told The Great Falls Tribune, which first reported the incident, that they will demand punishment for Black at a school board meeting scheduled Monday night.

“Their privacy rights were violated,” Suzanne Turnbull, mother of a seventh-grade student at the school, told the newspaper. “She set these students up for ridicule and bullying.”

Turnbull said she filed a complaint with Montana school superintendent Denise Juneau, whose office was closed for a holiday Monday.

Black said she met with district superintendent Chuck Cook, but she would not say whether she was disciplined. Cook did not return a call for comment.

Fourbear, whose office acts as a liaison between the tribe and the state-run schools on the reservation, said the tribes will leave it up to the school board to find a solution acceptable to everybody.

“What the principal did was not the best practice and it probably shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I guess we trust the process. I think the Poplar schools will consider the parents’ requests how to handle the situation.”

The middle school teaches fifth through ninth grades in Poplar, a poverty stricken town in northeastern Montana with less than 1,000 people, more than 60 percent of whom are American Indian.

Last year, five students committed suicide and 20 others tried to take their own lives at the middle school with students as young as 10 years old. The string of deaths and suicide attempts prompted the U.S. Department of Education to give the school district a $50,000 emergency grant in July, saying “the situation in the community has completely overwhelmed district staff.”

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. “It’s kind of been said that the whole idea of suicide, it’s become a solution for some of our kids.”

Marylyn Bruguier Zimmerman, director of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center at Montana State University, has been working with Poplar on suicide prevention training and screenings. She said clusters of suicides have been known to occur in other places, particularly with adolescents, but a cause can’t be pinned on any one problem.

Zimmerman said she was doubtful that the September assembly would affect the students’ recovery — none of the children brought it up during recent screenings of Poplar Middle School students for trauma symptoms, she said.

“Mistakes are made. People make them, but we take responsibility for them and assure the community that it won’t happen again,” Zimmerman said. “That’s what we encourage, and I’m sure that’s how the administration will respond.”

This year, the school has focused on improving parent involvement, including home visits, open houses and grandparents’ day at the school, Black said.

School officials also have increased monitoring for bullying, and positive results have already been seen with attendance up and discipline referrals down, she said.

Black said she doesn’t believe the September assembly will cause any friction in the relationship between her and the students and that she has already apologized to the students twice — once in small groups after the assembly and again before the whole student body Monday.

“I’m just trying to stay positive in school and with the kids,” she said. “The parents I’ve talked to in person, they’ve all been very good.”

She paused.

“Those that have actually talked to me,” she added. “If they want to talk, I’m available.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. The Porter
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    The Porter - October 18, 2010 2:11 am
    I agree with Spring. The entire community needs help. I counseled several kids almost 20 years ago, who were good friends of a young man who committed suicide. I told them not to blame themselves, offered to them that they should NEVER take a perminant action in reaction to a temporary situation.
    It's important to teach kids that everything changes or can be changed. Most of all they need our encouragement and our support. Give them a chance to say something and then listen to what they are telling you.
  2. clancykid
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    clancykid - October 12, 2010 10:44 pm
    I respect the fact that the principal attempted to motivate these kids into doing better. The drop out rate nationwide is a disgrace and from the lack of support from the parents, it's no wonder. I'm quite sure that principle Black was attempting to steer the kids into working harder. She should probably have had their teachers there also, but it shows me that she cares when so many don't these days.
  3. helenros
    Report Abuse
    helenros - October 12, 2010 12:54 pm
    It's a tragedy that there are so many children without any hope at all.
  4. rifleshooter
    Report Abuse
    rifleshooter - October 12, 2010 12:30 pm
    After reading the above posts I question if any of you have been to Poplar? If the principal was attempting to be motivational to the students,is that not his job? I would venture to guess that school faculty is not the reason for the high suicide rate on reservations. Stop putting your heads in the sand people!
  5. spring
    Report Abuse
    spring - October 12, 2010 9:25 am
    For me the saddest and most alarming part of this story was the fact of five CHILDREN killing themselves and 20 other CHILDREN attempting the same. Why was THIS not front page news last year? I mean, after the second or third child took their own life? Sounds like the stress is getting to all of the folks at the school and they deserve more support and guidance from OPI and any other group that can actually help.
  6. RightMT
    Report Abuse
    RightMT - October 12, 2010 5:40 am
    Principle Black should resign. She apparently has no understanding of Administration and human behavior. You single out kids who excel, not kids who fail. I do agree with Helenamama, the parents need to take an active role.
  7. helenamama
    Report Abuse
    helenamama - October 11, 2010 4:22 pm
    Although I think it was wrong for the principal to single out these children who were failing in front of the entire school, perhaps the parents complaining should focus more on helping their children succeed (rather than continue failing) in school - rather than attacking the principal. Seems that both the suicide issues and the failing students would be a problem parents should be tackling on the homefront - but considering the location of the school it is not all that suprising - sadly enough.

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