The Montana Gap: How a Montana school is combating bullying and suicide

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(This story was produced for The Montana Gap project, in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.)

When Seppa Francis was six years old, her father suffered a traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident.

Francis and her younger brother blamed themselves for years and Francis’s anger grew. Along with the emotional stress, the family experienced significant financial loss after the accident.

Francis felt bullied in school and her younger brother watched as a classmate repeatedly bullied others with no lasting repercussions. While the family reached out for help through counselors and therapists, the lack of true connection left Francis’s mother Lora Treat heartbroken for her children. Francis started expressing thoughts of suicide.

“I don’t get a do-over as a parent and I don’t know how to do it,” said Treat.

In January 2017, Francis attended the Say Something Assembly presented at Seeley Lake Elementary.

“It was like a reset for her,” said Treat. “It didn’t make everything go away but it was better than it had been in so many years.”

The flashy lights, the hip-hop music, the images blasted on three, 14-foot big screens used for the Say Something Assembly was used to start a conversation that empowered youth to speak out against bullying and suicide and offer hope to the young generation. It gave students, parents and the community the tools to recognize the warning signs and to change their behavior and the permission to say something before it was too late for themselves or someone else.

The Say Something Assembly broke down the stigma and judgment that Francis felt. The speaker Jody Dyess shared the story of his daughter’s attempted suicide, acknowledging the pain while offering hope and showing there was life past the dark places.

“It made it real,” said Treat. “It’s just life.”

Following the assembly, Treat said Francis had a renewed energy for life. She started mushing dogs again and she was nicer to her brother almost instantly. Francis was also able to better communicate her needs. Even though there wasn’t always a solution, she could explain that she was getting angry and could step back from the situation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education identify bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. One in three students in the United States say they have been bullied at school. The most common form is verbal or social bullying.

According to a study released by the CDC this June, suicide rates increased more than 30 percent in half of the states in the U.S. since 1999, increasing 38 percent across Montana. Montana still holds the number one spot for the highest rate of suicide reporting 29.2 completed suicides per 100,000 residents. Rural counties show the highest increase in suicide rates across the nation. Suicide is the number two cause of death for youth ages 15-24.

The CDC identifies bullying as one of several important risk factors that appear to increase the risk of suicide among youth. Children at risk of being bullied are perceived as weaker and/or different from their peers. Often they are depressed, anxious or have low self esteem, are not as popular, have few friends and are seen as annoying, provoking or antagonize others for attention.

For the co-founder of the Say Something Assembly and Missoula County Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Lowell Hochhalter, bullying makes youth more vulnerable often perpetuating situations where they feel like they have no one to help them.

“We made it not okay to be not okay,” said Hochhalter. “That forces kids to suffer in silence because they are not allowed to come and say, hey I’m struggling.”

The Say Something Assembly program started in 2012 to bring awareness, break the silence and empower youth to bring about change around human trafficking. While more than 300,000 students around the country have been shown the statistics of human trafficking, it is the stories of the survivors that put a face to the issue.

Hochhalter defines human trafficking as exploitation of vulnerabilities. Common themes in from survivors of human trafficking includes descriptions of a life of being bullied at home and then in school and thoughts of and attempted suicide.

It was because of these conversations that Say Something expanded to include an assembly on bullying and suicide. The first one in Montana was at Seeley Lake Elementary.

The goal of the assembly is to get kids to say what they are feeling and empower and equip them to say something for their friends.

“You are not a snitch or a nark. You are a lifesaver,” said Hochhalter. “It gives permission to say something because it is the right thing to do and turns it into an expectation.”

For Hochhalter and his son Carson, who leads their new Lifeguard Group program, bullying steals hope.

“Kids don’t understand that. They hear the laughs and encouragement from their friends, they see the mask that the person [being bullied] puts on that says you are really not bothering me, so they keep up with it,” said Hochhalter. ““The only place you find that the hope has been stolen completely is in a suicide note or a journal that has been left behind,”

Carson said he has seen the assembly open the bully’s eyes to the effects they may have. It also helps others recognize their peers who may be struggling and gather around them.

“It is really cool to see the students really jump on that,” said Carson. “It breaks down the walls that holds kids back from talking to each other about some of these issues and also going to the adults in the school and feeling like it is safe environment.”

Starting the conversation about bullying and suicide opens the door to pain and hurt that needs follow up and attention. In order to address that, SLE Superintendent Chris Stout and the counseling staff intentionally paired the assembly with the existing Phlight Club program. Through the Kaleidoscope Connection curriculum and Phlight Club activities, students identify and engage trusted adults, called anchors, who can support them through life.

“It was a different approach to a super long existing problem,” said Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Sunderland, who was involved with bringing the Say Something Assembly to SLE. Sunderland equates success with helping one person not follow through with suicide because of the awareness and community support. “I believe we did that more than once.”

However to change the culture of the community, Sunderland said there needs to be a lot of shifts, starting with communication.

“Awareness cures,” said Sunderland. “People need to be aware of it and then participate in those conversations to make it successful.”

As a result of conversations started by the Say Something Assembly, Hochhalter has seen teachers and adults offer youth hugs to those who want them, call them by name and ask how they are doing or develop special handshakes.

“As goofy as that sounds, that is what makes a difference,” said Lowell. “To me that is brushing away hurt and pain. If we could all just do that for one another, we would see a massive change.”

While being offered in more than 200 schools across the nation, the Say Something Assembly has only been offered in three schools in Montana, SLE, Drummond and DeSmet. Missoula County Public High Schools opted not to host the assembly.

It’s been a year and a half since the assembly. New situations for Treat and her children have caused some of the same vulnerabilities and new ones to surface.

“It was extremely moving and the story [Dyess told at the assembly] was not a far reach for it to be our family. Whenever we speak to someone’s heart we have the opportunity to change,” said Treat. “It carried us though for nearly a year but now what?”

Treat feels that the solution is in connectedness – either through support groups or therapy where the patient can get to know their therapist on a personal level.

“It is the people that have been there that offer the hope that yes, it hurts, but everyone is valuable,” said Treat. “They have changed my family.”

Andi Bourne reports for the Seeley Swan Pathfinder.

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