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Livingston Suicide Renews Focus On Bullying

Young people who’ve experienced homelessness in Montana feel like they often fall through the cracks of programs designed to help kids fleeing abusive homes or needing a place to stay. Stock photo.
Livingston Suicide Renews Focus On Bullying

Livingston residents are meeting this evening to discuss two recent student suicides at Park High School. 17-year-old Deon Gillen took his own life February 14. Another student suicide was reported less than a week later.

Gillen’s parents filed suit against Livingston School District nearly two years ago, saying their son’s classmates were relentlessly bullying him. Neither Livingston School District officials nor the Gillens' attorney responded to Montana Public Radio’s requests for comment.

Between late 2013 and early 2014, four Butte teenagers committed suicide. Last October, an 11-year-old elementary school student killed himself.

Butte School Superintendent Judy Jonart says cases like these devastate not only the affected schools, but entire communities.
"It’s just heartbreaking and it takes people’s breath away, frankly. It really has pushed that attention to suicide on a community level here in Butte."
Jonart says bullying doesn’t appear to be a factor in any of those tragic cases.
"No. Nothing ever came out of the bullying issue."
Last year Governor Steve Bullock signed an anti-bullying bill into law. The Montana Office of Public Instruction’s Tracy Moseman says individual Montana districts are mandated to develop their own bullying policies.
"What we would hope would happen if they’re doing it in a comprehensive way is that we really train adults and train schools to take every report seriously and not to question a child when they have the courage to come forward with a report."
Schools must develop clear definitions of what actually constitutes bullying. Moseman says that’s now happening district by district. She says there’s a difference between routine childhood confrontations and intentional intimidation.

"The sample definition that we give on our website states that, 'Bullying is negative, often-repeated behavior, with the intent to hurt someone physically or emotionally and involves an imbalance of power.'"
That "imbalance of power" part is important.
"It could be that the child believes or feels the perpetrator or the aggressor is somehow more powerful. They might be more popular, they might have a different economic status, (they) could be seen as a sports figure. There’s something in that child’s mind that creates an imbalance of power.”
Moseman says Montana’s youngest students are now instructed to have zero tolerance for bullies:

"If you feel like you’re being bullied, then you need to stop, you need to tell the perpetrator to stop. You need to walk away, and you need to tell an adult. Even at a very young age with kindergartners, they can remember those simple three steps of 'stop, walk and talk.'"
Parents are advised to watch for any behavioral changes in their children’s response to attending school.
"It could be they start to become angry, they don’t want to go to school. They may start to come up with a list of illnesses – stomach aches. Things that come along with anxiety can be signals that a child could be anxious about wanting to come to school because they don’t feel safe," Moseman says.
Bullying polices are evolving in Montana schools, but Moseman says technology and social media continues to present a stubborn challenge.
"It used to be that at least kids could escape the bullying and go home to a safe environment where they felt loved and protected, but now with social media and kids having 24/7 access to those social networks, it makes it more difficult for them to shut it off, escape and get away."

Butte School Superintendent Judy Jonart agrees, online bullying is a tough nut to crack. But once these bullying cases make it on to school grounds, she says everyone is obligated to put an immediate end to it.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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