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Kevin Woster

Kevin Woster

For school administrators, phone calls don’t get much worse than those with news of another suicide.

And that awful sound has been heard in the Rapid City public school district eight times in the last 17 months.

“I’m usually one of the first people that gets the call, whether it’s from law enforcement or one of the principals,” says Matt Seebaum, assistant superintendent for educational services.

“Whenever my phone goes off in the middle of the night or really early in the morning or on a weekend, if someone’s calling and needing to reach me, especially law enforcement, I know there’s something bad has happened,” he said. “And that’s the first place my mind goes: there’s been a suicide.”

Seebaum’s mind went to that terrible place 10 days ago, after a male staff member in the school district died by suicide.

In a sad irony, the latest tragedy postponed for a few days my previously scheduled interview on suicide response-and-prevention work with Seebaum, district lead counselor Dana Livermont and Community Relations Manager Katy Urban, who were busy responding to the loss.

Staff suicides are unusual tragedies in the district. Student suicides, however, happen with mind-numbing regularity, here and across the nation. In Rapid City that has been especially true in the last year and a half.

Urban was rightly protective of the personal information about those who died in the last stretch of suicides. But even the more generalized data on the deaths is a hard slap in the face:

• July 2017, 10th-grade male; August 2017, 10th-grade male; September 2017, 10th-grade male; March 2018, 10th-grade male; July 2, 2018, 10th-grade female; July 21, 2018, 8th-grade female; Oct. 3, 2018, 9th-grade female; Dec. 6, 2018, male staff member.

“This last stretch of suicides was unusually bad for us,” Urban said. “But it’s not just Rapid City issue. It’s a national issue.”

She points to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics that reflects an increasing problem in the United States. It shows twice as many children and adolescents being admitted to hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm during the last decade.

The recent string of losses wasn’t the first such stretch in Rapid City. During a horrid 30-month period a little more than a decade ago, 14 teenagers in the district died by suicide. Then, partly through help from a grant-funded prevention program, the district went three years without a student dying by suicide.

Seebaum, Livermont, Urban and a network of staffers are working to see such hopeful stretches again. That network includes 30 school-district counselors, 10 staff psychologists, two new social workers and eight counselors working in the schools under contract with a not-for-profit provider, Behavior Management Systems.

And last month the district hired its first-ever suicide-prevention specialist. Sarah Zimmerman will lead the district’s effort to bring a prevention curriculum to the middle schools and high schools. The curriculum will magnify ongoing awareness work and offer in-classroom education on suicide risks and prevention.

“We’re trying to be as proactive as possible and to be responsive to what has happened in the district,” Livermont said. “We want to give students the skills to respond if they’re worried about themselves or worried about a friend.”

The new job won’t be easy, Seebaum said.

“You’ve got to have the right person to deal mostly with suicide prevention,” he said. “That’s a really hard job.”

It’s also one that could help reduce the number of those awful phone calls.

Resources are available for anyone considering suicide or seeking help for another person. The Helpline Center can be contacted at 1-800-273-8255 or by visiting helplinecenter.org. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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Kevin Woster writes a blog and offers radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing kevinwoster@rushmore.com.

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