The U.S. Department of Education has awarded Pine Ridge School in South Dakota a $218,000 grant under the agency’s Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) program in response to a sharp increase in youth suicides.
The school is a BIE-operated K-12 boarding school on the Pine Ridge Reservation that serves nearly 800 students from the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Its dormitory houses approximately 150 students during the school year.
Since December two high school and two middle-school age students at Pine Ridge School have committed suicide. A total of nine youths ages 12-24 across the reservation have taken their own lives in this time period.
“We are heartbroken about the tragic loss of life and are committed to working with the Pine Ridge community as it heals. These funds will help Pine Ridge School’s continued efforts to restore the learning environment in the face of these great tragedies,” said William Mendoza, director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education at the U.S. Department of Education when the grant was announced recently.
Professionals have suggested that cyberbullying by other students could have played a part in the Pine Ridge School suicides. A mythical Internet-based character created by anonymous users in chat rooms beginning in 2009 may also have played a part. Slender Man, or Tall Spirit Man, is implicated in the stabbing of a child in Wisconsin by two 12 year olds, who are now being tried as adults for first-degree attempted homicide.
The grant to Pine Ridge School was awarded under the federal SERV program, administered by the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students. SERV provides funding to school districts, colleges and universities to assist them in recovering from traumatic or violent events that have disrupted the learning environment.
“No tribe can long endure the loss of its lifeblood, its children and youth, to suicide,” said Bureau of Indian Education Director Charles M. “Monty” Roessel. “Thanks to the Department of Education and the SERV Program, the Pine Ridge School will be able to begin to help its students and their families onto healthier life paths that lead to more positive outcomes.”
Suicide among youth in Indian country takes a terrible toll. In 2011, the American Association of Suicidology stated the suicide rate for American Indian/Alaska Native 15- to 24 year olds was 17.72 per 100,000, as compared to 12.1 for whites.
In a 2010 hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, “The Preventable Epidemic: Youth and the Urgent Need for Mental Health Care Resources in Indian Country,” Randy E. Grinnell, then-deputy director of IHS, testified, “Suicide is the second leading cause of death (behind unintentional injuries) for Indian youth ages 15-24 residing in IHS service areas.”
Factors contributing to a high incidence of youth suicide among American Indians include poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, child neglect and abuse, and knowing someone who committed suicide; other causal agents include historic trauma and adverse childhood experiences, such as exposure to domestic or other violence.
Among the factors that help protect AI/AN young people against suicide are a sense of connectedness with family and the community, good self-esteem, and a strong sense of cultural identity and spirituality and knowledge of traditional values, and this is where Pine Ridge School plans to focus it efforts.
The grant will fund the “Lakota Way of Life” program, a multi-faceted and holistic approach to healing based on Lakota traditional culture. Five cultural teachers, who are also state-certified in associated professions, such as social work, will each provide one activity per month for 12 months, including hands-on learning and the practice of traditional methods of support and healing, according to Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling.
In addition, the “Support Alliances” project will provide training to a core group of students on how to facilitate communication amongst their peers, within their families, and with the larger community, she noted.
Groupings of suicides, such as the one that has occurred at Pine Ridge in the past few months, have happened before. In 2009, former IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux testified before the SCIA during a hearing on the 7th Generation Promise: Indian Youth Suicide Prevention Act of 2009 (which did not pass). She said, “Indian country has communities every year where suicide takes on a particularly ominous and seemingly contagious form, often referred to as suicide clusters. In these communities, the suicidal act becomes a regular and transmittable form of expression of the despair and hopelessness experienced by some Indian youth.”
“Suicide and suicidal behavior and their consequences send shockwaves through many communities in Indian country,” where access to mental health care is often lacking, said Robideaux.
Pine Ridge School has already started cultural programming for its students using 21st Century Funds. Students are currently traveling to the seven sacred sites of the Lakota people. They are awakening to the significance and importance of these sites that pertain to the past, present, and future generation of the Lakota people, said Darling.
The school has also utilized the Sweet Grass Program of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which has provided BIE-funded and BIE-operated schools training in the American Indian Life Skills Development Curriculum, as well as Applied Suicide Prevention Training. These programs train school staff and all community members who work with children in the techniques that open up communication between children and adults.
Sweet Grass Program/Facebook
This image was taken during the Breakout Run in January 2014, and has a simple message to "Honor Your Life."
Despite the current crisis, Pine Ridge School has unwavering hope that its students will recover from this trauma. “We hope the students will reawaken the pride of their own unique identity and find a new sense of belonging and self-esteem. Over the years their ancestors have developed very unique and distinct ceremonies and customs that deal with all the spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical suffering and hardships that a human person could expect to encounter throughout his/her life. By reawaking or revitalizing our children’s inner Lakota way of thinking, they will be better equipped to deal with their inherited and inflicted trauma and depression,” said Darling, recounting a conversation with Pine Ridge School Acting Principal Michael Carlow.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free service available 24 hours a day at 800-273-TALK (8255).