By REGINA GARCIA CANO
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) _ Federal education officials have given Pine Ridge School in western South Dakota $218,000 to help students and teachers in their recovery from a string of student suicides and attempted suicides in recent months on the Indian reservation where the school is located.
The White House on Wednesday announced the grant for the nearly 800-pupil school that serves the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The school requested federal assistance after seeing a significant increase in counseling referrals, people expressing they were thinking about ending their lives, and suicide attempts between August and April.
A series of seven suicides by adolescents in recent months has shaken the community and sent school officials seeking federal help as four of the youth who took their lives were Pine Ridge School students; two were in high school and the other two were of middle-school age.
“Children and youth need help in seeing that their lives have meaning and that they, too, have the power to create promising futures for themselves,” Charles Roessel, director of the Bureau of Indian Education, said in a statement Wednesday. “No tribe can long endure the loss of its life blood, its children and youth, to suicide.”
The grant from the U.S. Department of Education will allow the school to hire additional counselors and social workers to help students during the summer school session and the upcoming school year. It will also support the implementation of what federal officials are describing as a “multi-faceted and holistic approach to healing” based on traditional Lakota culture and relevant to students who have dealt with the traumatic events.
On Dec. 12, a 14-year-old boy hanged himself at his home on the reservation. On Christmas Day, a 15-year-old girl was found dead, followed weeks later by a cheerleader from Pine Ridge School. Two more young people took their lives in February and two more in March, along with several more attempts. The youngest to die was 12.
Tribal leaders, school officials, students and parents point to a host of problems on the reservation as reasons for the surge of suicides and suicide attempts. The most common are bullying on social media and at school, troubled family lives and a sense of hopelessness due to lack of economic opportunities and high unemployment rates.
Pine Ridge School is located in the reservation’s largest town and is operated by the Bureau of Indian Education. It offers kindergarten through high school and has a dormitory that houses about 150 students during the school year. A school principal was not immediately available to comment on the funding.
Somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000 members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe live on the impoverished reservation, which at over 2 million acres is among the nation’s largest. The reservation has continually suffered from high rates of poor health, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and higher than average suicide rates in all age groups.