HELENA, Mont. – The mother of a teenager who shot himself last year during a rash of child suicides on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana has filed a lawsuit claiming the school district and the state are responsible for his death.
Dalton Gourneau's death in Wolf Point in November followed five suicides and 20 attempts at a middle school in Poplar, about 20 miles east on the reservation, leading tribal officials to declare an emergency. Federal health officials were sent in for several months last year to provide counseling and come up with a strategy.
Indian Health Service officials told The Associated Press in February they believed the crisis had passed. But family members and tribal and spiritual leaders say suicide is still the top problem among children and teens at Fort Peck, with at least one more teenager dying this year.
Roxanne Gourneau, a judge in Fort Peck's tribal family court, said Wednesday the suicide epidemic was well-known across the Fort Peck reservation at the time of her 17-year-old son's death. The school and state should have taken precautions to hire and train staff to deal with students and anticipate the need for extra care in that atmosphere, she said.
"This is a high-risk area. Not everybody can teach in these conditions," Roxanne Gourneau said. "The interest here is the high rate of suicide. If you're a professional that deals with these students every day, wouldn't it behoove you to get that extra training?"
Roxanne Gourneau claims the school officials who handled a disciplinary case involving her 17-year-old son failed to properly investigate the matter, were not properly trained to handle crisis situations and did not contact her as they were supposed to. Their negligence led to Dalton Gourneau's suicide, she alleges in the lawsuit.
Roxanne Gourneau filed her lawsuit last month in Roosevelt County district court, naming as defendants school district superintendent Henry Hamill, the school board and the state of Montana. A lawsuit tells only one side of a legal argument, and no other parents or families of suicide victims have filed suit.
School board chairman Martin DeWitt did not return calls for comment Tuesday or Wednesday. A receptionist who answered the phone at the school district's offices Tuesday said Hamill had been suspended for an unrelated matter, but declined to say why.
Kevin O'Brien, a spokesman for Attorney General Steve Bullock, said Wednesday neither the state Department of Justice nor the Office of Public Instruction had received the lawsuit and he could not comment.
Roxanne Gourneau said she filed the lawsuit only after waiting months for an investigation into her son's death by the school, county or the state. When an investigation wasn't forthcoming, she decided to force one by suing, she said.
"The truth. That for us would be closure, the truth. He was beautiful. His truth will save people's lives," she said.
About three hours before Dalton Gourneau's death, a Wolf Point High School counselor caught the teen putting a can of chewing tobacco in his pocket while walking down a school hallway, according to the lawsuit. Dalton Gourneau said he was holding the tobacco for another student.
Dalton Gourneau met with the school's activities director and principal and was told he would be suspended from school athletic activities for 60 days.
Dalton Gourneau was on the school's wrestling team, and the suspension would have caused him to miss an upcoming state tournament. He met with Hamill to appeal the penalty.
Hamill told Dalton Gourneau that he had to uphold the school's policy and encouraged the boy to attend the school board meeting scheduled for the next month.
Dalton Gourneau then went home "shocked and depressed with the news given by Mr. Hamill" and shot himself, the lawsuit said.
Roxanne Gourneau said her son was otherwise happy and she didn't believe there were any other factors that could have led to his death.
A message left at a number listed under Hamill's name was not immediately returned Wednesday.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified awards for damages and costs, but Gourneau said the case is not about money.
"It's not going to save my son, but what it will do is force change to save the lives of other individuals. I need to do this for his friends and his other family members," Roxanne Gourneau said.