Principal under fire in school stung by suicides

By Matt Volz
Helena, Montana (AP) October 2010

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 last week.

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 of 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 this week.

“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.

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 last week.

“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.”