PIERRE | Suicides rates set a record high during 2017 for South Dakota, state epidemiologist Josh Clayton told a panel of lawmakers Thursday.
Clayton didn’t give the number to the House Health and Human Services Committee, however. Final data were still pending.
He confirmed the 2017 total exceeded the 161 of 2016 and the record 173 set in 2015. “Suicide rates are increasing in South Dakota,” Clayton said.
He presented statistics to the committee showing that South Dakota ranked 13th in the nation for the suicide rate during 2016, with 18.6 self-inflicted deaths per 100,000 people. The rate nationally was 13.9.
Native American suicide rates stood 1.8 times higher than rates for whites in South Dakota between 2004 and 2015. Veterans of the armed forces killed themselves at more than twice the rate for the general population in South Dakota from 2000 through 2016.
The five worst counties for suicides from 2004 through 2016 were Todd, Buffalo, Corson, Oglala Lakota and Dewey. All have significant tribal populations.
State Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon sat next to Clayton at the witness table. “Any preventable death is a public health issue,” she said. “Suicide is a pressing public health issue.”
State Social Services Secretary Lynne Valenti described the variety of state government efforts. They ranged from community tool kits and coalitions to prevention resource centers and locks for firearm-triggers.
Spreading the message, Valenti said, relies on “lots of word of mouth.”
She said there’s been training for more than 5,000 people and, so far, 827 referrals of people in South Dakota considering suicide.
“This is a serious health issue,” said Rep. Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford, who is also committee chairman.
Steinhauer asked how lawmakers could help.
“There’s not a way to legislate your way out of suicide,” Malsam-Rysdon replied.
She acknowledged state government’s prevention efforts don’t include research at any of the higher education campuses.
“I think that’s a great suggestion,” Malsam-Rysdon told Steinhauer.
South Dakota requires schools to provide suicide awareness training. The state Department of Education reportedly tracks those numbers.
“I don’t know that we’ve been able to connect that data to what’s going on with the schools,” Malsam-Rysdon said.
James “Jim” Rankin first set foot on the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology campus as an incoming freshman in the fall of 1974.
At the time, he recalls, there would have been no imagining his return, 44 years later, to become the university’s 19th president.
“Not a chance,” Rankin said with a laugh. “I think at that point I was just worried about becoming a sophomore.”
Rankin, originally from Draper and Fort Pierre, worried and studied his way to a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Mines in 1978.
He met with reporters in Rapid City on Thursday for the first time since returning to the city Jan. 8.
Rankin, who was appointed by the state Board of Regents in November, outlined some of his goals as university president.
Before accepting the post, he was vice-provost for research and economic development at the University of Arkansas. His leadership at the Fayetteville campus helped generate more than 50 startup companies and increased annual external funding to $103 million.
Rankin earned his Ph.D. and master’s in electrical engineering at Iowa State University. His career took him to Rockwell-Collins, where he worked as an engineer. He also taught at St. Cloud State University and Ohio University.
Rankin succeeds Heather Wilson, who left in May to accept President Donald Trump’s appointment as Air Force secretary.
He inherits a university boasting a 98 percent placement rate for its science and engineering graduates in nine of the last 10 years. Last year saw the placement rate slip to 96 percent.
“I know it can’t go much higher (than 98 percent), but we want to make sure it stays there,” he said.
Rankin also wants to boost enrollment, with a goal of 3,000 undergraduate students. There are currently around 2,400 undergraduate students at the school.
He said a state Board of Regents decision approving in-state tuition fees for qualifying new and transfer students from Colorado and Nebraska will be key to helping Mines increase its undergraduate enrollment.
Rankin also hopes to boost fundraising efforts to increase the number of scholarships offered to students, and increase research by Mines faculty and students with an eye toward increasing business development in Rapid City and the Black Hills.
He said the campus already has 30 entrepreneurs-in-residence helping students who want to start companies through the Black Hills Business Development Center, which recently announced plans to expand from the Mines campus with another location at 108 Main St.
“The seeds are planted. We just need to keep helping in that area,” he said.
Rankin hopes to meet soon with city officials to learn of continuing efforts to link the Mines campus and the city business district through expansion of the downtown core east of Fifth Street, along with expansion of the business development center.
“We’ve always had that little bit of distance between us, and if we can add new businesses, we want to help participate in that. If we can help in company attraction or with start-up companies, we like to do that,” Rankin said.
Much has changed on the Mines campus and in Rapid City since Rankin left, while some things were quickly familiar.
Long gone is the March-Dake Dormitory and an old classroom building, whose location is marked with an arch. The campus has expanded to the west with the addition of three new dormitories.
Rankin recalls O’Harra Stadium with its unique multi-tier parking and Surbeck Center, where incoming students received their green frosh beanies.
“Some of those good memories came back,” he said.
Rankin said he will spend much of his first days back on campus meeting with student, staff and faculty and also get to know Rapid City again.
“This isn’t just me deciding to throw out an idea, this is really all of us deciding together how we want to move forward,” he said.
Everyone has a story to tell, they just need a platform to tell it. By hearing those stories, we can better understand the communities where we live.
That's the idea behind Tea Rozman Clark's work with immigrants through the nonprofit organization Green Card Voices. Speaking at The Garage Thursday morning as part of the Morning Fill Up series, Rozman Clark laid out the mission of her Minnesota-based organization.
Green Card Voices attempts to bridge gaps between immigrant and non-immigrant communities by interviewing immigrants and having them tell their stories as part of an oral history. The interviews have taken place in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and will soon be coming to South Dakota. Green Card Voices then turns those interviews into online videos, books, podcasts, exhibits and other materials.
Currently, Green Card Voices has interviewed more than 300 people from over 100 countries. "We felt it's important to create a platform where immigrants could share their own story, in their own voice," Rozman Clark said Thursday morning.
She notes that each story is unique, and when we hear each person's story, we get a better understand of the fabric of a community.
Her organization looks to meet viewers and listeners of these stories in the "comfort zone," of their home. Rozman Clark says after those people listen in their comfort zone, they will then moving to a "learning zone," and have a better understanding of others.
Rozman Clark, who earned a doctoral degree in cultural history specializing in oral history recording, can easily relate to interviewees because she is also an immigrant. She is a first-generation American from what now is the Central European county of Slovenia.
During her time growing up in the former Yugoslavia, she worked in refugee camps during a lengthy war in her country. The people in those camps were in that situation not because of their actions but the actions of others in power, she said.
"Completely by no fault of their own but exclusively by external forces, they have everything in their lives taken away from them."
Rozman Clark said making the decision to be an immigrant isn't easy for most families, even when immigrants get to their new home. "It's creating a life for you from scratch, in many ways," she said.
In Minnesota, Rozman Clark said she "doesn't have a high school friend she can call" and talk about "the old days."
She said many people assume that once immigrants get to the United States, they will magically be able to achieve the American dream. But for most, that simply isn't the case.
However, through understanding, we can make everyone's lives richer, Rozman Clark said. "We really need to take the time to listen, understand and to really try to imagine the best in others because we jump to conclusions that are not very good. Really try to see the humanity in all of us."
Rozman Clark preaches "intentional diversity" in society as a way to understand the country and bridge the gap between different cultures.
She makes sure her daughter invites people from several different backgrounds to her birthday party even it if would be easier to only invite people who look, act and think like her.
"You have to, at one point, say you cannot just do what you have always done or what feels comfortable," she said.
PIERRE | The Lower Brule Sioux chairman on Thursday urged South Dakota lawmakers to expand the Medicaid health coverage program and work with tribes to fight meth use.
Chairman Boyd Gourneau said in the third State of the Tribes address that he's seen firsthand the destruction that meth has on people's lives.
"It does not discriminate, and it is not only found in reservation communities," Gourneau said. "If there was ever an issue that the tribe and state should band together on, it is to combat meth use within our state."
Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard had worked under Democrat Barack Obama's presidency to expand the program, but dropped the push after the 2016 election.
Gourneau said before working together on meth, health care and other issues, the relationship between the state and the tribes needs to be solidified with frequent, relevant conversations and actions.
He said some people still hold onto racial biases against Native Americans in South Dakota, but turning a blind eye only allows that mentality to continue. Subjecting fellow residents to racist acts and comments is detrimental to improving relations and reconciliation, Gourneau said.
"We are all South Dakotans. Our state is rightfully named after the original inhabitants in this area," Gourneau said. "The people on our reservations are farmers, ranchers, college graduates, employees and taxpayers, and simply put, your average South Dakotans."
He also highlighted Lower Brule's successes in areas such as agriculture with Lakota Foods popcorn. The tribe's headquarters is in Lower Brule, and roughly 1,300 enrolled members live on the Lower Brule Reservation in central South Dakota.
Last legislative session, Chairman Robert Flying Hawk of the Yankton Sioux Tribe gave the address.
Democratic Sen. Kevin Killer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said it's among the best ways to build connections between tribal and non-Native communities across the state while also acknowledging that tribal governments have a voice and a seat at the table.