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Death on the playground

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FAITH, S.D. - A suicide that occurred on a school playground has fueled talk of racism, oppression and abuse. And facts that lead to the truth may never be known.

Authorities initially treated the death of Kristopher J. Long Elk, 17, as a suicide, but community critics brought up murder, and some people went to the extreme and uttered "hate crime."

Long Elk was found on a playground at the Faith school the morning of March 5. His body lay on the ground with a leather strap attached to his neck. He was first seen by an elementary school student.

His death, as some people argue whether murder or suicide, is the responsibility of a racist community. Long Elk attended school in Faith for sixth, seventh and eighth grades, but most recently attended another school while he and his family lived in Faith.

Detractors argue that it could have been a negative experience at the school and in the town if a suicide, and his death, they assert, may have been a statement. The other side of the argument claims there was no racism or oppression against American Indians at the school, and they add he had many friends at the school. There are 33 American Indian students enrolled at the school.

In any regard it may be something the small community will have to address, some residents said.

Long Elk died, according to his family, the night before he was found, on March 4. There was celebrating in the small town that night. It's basketball tournament time and Faith was victorious and will play in the state Class B tourney - good reason for a party atmosphere. Suicide experts claim it may have been an opportune time for Long Elk to commit his act, while there was much activity in the community. Authorities would not confirm if a note was found.

Local residents said Long Elk was a well-liked young man, polite, reserved and a loner. Yet people added that he had many friends among the teens in Faith. He lived in Faith but attended Takini school on the Cheyenne River Reservation, some 40 miles away.

"If it was a murder or a suicide, the death of a Native American kid in a border town where racial complaints have occurred raises a red flag," said Jennifer Ring, executive director of the ACLU, who is conducting an investigation.

In a community with a population of less than 500, news travels quickly. So much so that people began to gather around Long Elk's body early in the morning and critics claim the crime scene was contaminated and not properly sealed. Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin said the crime scene was handled in the best manner possible. School was starting when the police arrived at the scene, but children were secured in the building.

Merwin said Long Elk was not known to authorities and had no record.

Some elementary students saw the body as they came to school or peered through the windows which were covered with black paper. Counseling by clergy and psychologists started immediately and is still available, said Terry Mayer, superintendent. The students were not sent home, and that raises another question for parents and investigators, especially the ACLU. Ring said her concern was whether or not the parents were notified by phone or sent notes explaining the incident. She said she wanted to know why the school wasn't closed and buses turned around.

Mayer could say no more about the incident, which is under investigation by the state Department of Criminal Investigation and the State Attorney General's office. Sarah Rabern, spokesperson for the Attorney General's office said the office would have no comment until the autopsy and investigation were completed.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Faith School District has been hit with accusations over abuse and failure to properly educate a child, who is an American Indian with a learning disability. Bill and Kalli Johnson filed a complaint on behalf of their son with the state Office of Civil Rights and with the State Advocacy Group for what Kalli alleges is physical and racial abuse and not providing proper education for her son.

This allegation itself has created a division in the community. Small towns don't want their dirty laundry aired in public, one resident said.

Sharron Johnson, owner of a tax and accounting service in Faith who is also a substitute teacher said she sees nothing in this matter that pertains to racism. "The fact he was Native American had nothing to do with it," she said.

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Johnson is the mother of three elementary school students and said she thought of taking her children out of school on March 5, but found they were secure and had no idea what had happened.

"They made sure the students were in a secure environment. The school did everything they could for the kids."

Johnson said teenagers in the school were crying and very upset. She teaches high school students and said Long Elk came to the school quite often and had friends at the school.

Kalli Johnson said she went to the school to take her children home. "I got a call in the morning asking if my kids were ok," she said. "I was told there was a dead Native boy on the playground.

"I went to the school and there were cops everywhere. They never sealed off the area and there were people there checking out the body.

"There were kids in the hallways crying."

Kalli Johnson said other parents were at the school to remove their children. She said her son was scared and was afraid someone was going to do that to him next. Her son is nine and asked to sleep with the lights on.

"There are some good people in town, and some bad ones. The whole town is not bad," Kalli Johnson said.

The group Students and Teachers Against Racism (STAR) called the situation racist. Charles Yow, attorney for STAR said, "What we do know is the community, through their denial, who refused to stand and be counted in opposition to the oppression of Native people, found time to gawk at the lifeless body in the playground.

"The people in Faith who refused to acknowledge and take a stand against the oppression of Indian peoples are as guilty as those who physically perpetrate the violent atrocities and tonight, and each night into eternity, they will go to sleep with blood on their hands," Yow said.

Bryce In the Woods, tribal council member said the tribal government would wait to see what happens with the autopsy and investigation before taking any action. He also said that the family would be contacted for approval to hold a ceremony at the playground.

Kalli Johnson has also been the victim of harsh letters in the local newspaper and has found dead birds on her front doorstep. She was concerned for the safety of her children when she heard of the incident.

Sharron Johnson went so far as to emphasize that people in Faith were integrated, that all people were accepted and everyone took care of each other, regardless of race.

Some members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe hinted that Faith was a town full of discrimination and disputed Sharron Johnson's remarks, but would not go on record because they had relatives in Faith.

Wendy Mendoza, instructional services coordinator for Takini School, said Long Elk was taking mostly ninth grade classes mixed with some higher level courses. She also said the students and faculty were devastated. She was not at liberty to disclose any other information and was waiting for legal advice. The school also had brought in counselors for the students.

Suicide on an American Indian reservation is nothing new, but yet still tragic when it happens. The entire reservation grieves and surrounds the family. Statistics from Indian Health Services show that suicide rates in the Great Plains are higher than any other on the national average of all races and the second highest among Indian nations.