Corey Harouff received a disturbing phone call Tuesday night. A student Harouff knew through his nonprofit, Rapid City Young Life, was using the social media app Snapchat and saw a message from another student that bothered him.

"He's going to kill himself," Harouff recalled the student telling him. 

Harouff got the student's name, called dispatch and relayed the information to authorities. Pennington County sheriff's deputies were eventually able to locate the student before he could harm himself. 

Harouff shared the story Wednesday night at a special meeting organized by the Rapid City school district to address a recent rash of suicides that has alarmed the community. Since mid-July, eight local students and one school staff member have died, and three of those deaths were by suicide. 

A diverse panel of school officials, local law enforcement and mental health experts held an hourlong discussion that focused on suicide prevention and how to connect with students who may be thinking about hurting themselves. 

More than 100 people attended the meeting in the City/School Administration Center in the Council Chambers. The first floor of the chambers was so crowded that school officials opened a second room on the floor above, where another group listened to the discussion via speaker. Members of the public were allowed to write in questions but were not given time during the meeting to address panel members directly.

Several people on the panel emphasized the importance of listening to students who are experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts. It's "the most important thing you can do," said Stephanie Schweitzer Dixon, executive director of the Front Porch Coalition. The Rapid City nonprofit provides prevention, intervention and "postvention" services to prevent the incidence of suicide, according to its website. 

Schweitzer Dixon presented a slideshow that included tips for how to talk to children about suicide. The entire community, whether it's schoolteachers, parents or foster parents, must ask specific questions such as, "How can I help you?" or "What can I do to help you right now?" Schweitzer Dixon said. 

The use of social media and its effect on children's happiness was also raised during the discussion. "Social media is so addicting for all of us," said school liaison officer Eric Dwyer. 

Each year, fewer and fewer kids are physically getting together for activities or simple things like going outside, Dwyer said. "I think that's so sad." 

He encouraged parents to wait until their children are older before allowing them to create social media accounts. Dwyer said he didn't know what the appropriate age is. "21?" he jokingly suggested, prompting many in the crowd to chuckle. 

Dwyer turned serious again when he brought up his own 15-year-old son and the thought of giving him access to social media. "I don't know when I'm going to give it to him. Not yet." 

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Matthew Seebaum, assistant superintendent of educational services, said the entire school district will implement a risk assessment survey for students who are suicidal. If a school receives a report of a student who is suicidal, staff will determine whether the person is a low, moderate or high risk. Based on that information, staff will decide what kind of services the student needs. 

School spokeswoman Katy Urban said the district already uses a similar system but hopes to put a formal process in place soon.

Charles Sitting Bull, who has participated in suicide prevention efforts on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, said he has been tracking the number of suicide deaths there since late 2014, and "the numbers are staggering." 

Gang violence and other tragedies have increased the need for counselors on the reservation, he said. 

After the meeting several panel members, including Harouff, hung around to chat with parents. Harouff shared stories of other students he had helped who were on the brink of ending their life. He became emotional while recalling the times he cried with them while they recounted their troubles, and mentioned one instance in which he had to physically restrain a student from hurting himself. 

Despite the recent string of suicide deaths and growing concerns over cyberbullying, what happened Tuesday night was a victory for Harouff and law enforcement in their effort to reach children who are going through a crisis. 

"Social media just saved a kid's life yesterday," Harouff told the panel. 

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City Editor

City editor for the Rapid City Journal.