State of Despair

Mother: 'I heard him cry like I’ve never heard him cry'

2013-03-31T00:00:00Z 2013-04-04T14:13:06Z Mother: 'I heard him cry like I’ve never heard him cry'By CINDY UKEN cuken@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

WOLF POINT – After being disciplined for violating the school's tobacco policy, Dalton Gourneau, a 17-year-old Wolf Point High School student, scrawled a note to his mother and then killed himself.

“I love you guys a lot and wish it wouldn’t have come to this, but am hurting,” he printed in his suicide note. “I shall walk threw a valley … of death but am strong so don’t worry.”

The high school senior committed suicide on Nov. 23, 2010, two days before Thanksgiving.

“You can call it bullying or whatever,” his mother Roxanne Gourneau said of school officials. She said they did something to her son that day to push him over the edge. "You can’t break someone that invincible."

Her son’s demise began when he was caught with a can of chewing tobacco, his mother said. Dalton said he was holding it for another student. 

Within three hours and 10 minutes of the tobacco being confiscated, the learning-disabled wrestler was dead.

He was pulled out of class and ordered to the dean of students, then to the athletic director, the wrestling coach and the principal, Gourneau said. He was suspended from school athletic activities for 60 days, which included the upcoming state tournament he had looked forward to.

After one last stop at the superintendent’s office, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 260-pound youth walked home, wrote his note and pulled the trigger.

“At no time did they call the school resource office,” she said. “At no time did they call me.”

The school's 2010-2011 student handbook calls for student athletes in violation of the tobacco policy to be suspended from activities for 60 days, said Superintendent Joe Pain.

Parents are informed either by phone or by letter when students are suspended from an activity. Gourneau was sent a letter, Pain said.

Gourneau said the only contact she received was from her son who left a message on her cell phone.

“I heard him cry like I’ve never heard him cry,” Gourneau said, recalling the message. “It was like this hurt, a hurt so deep. He was telling me how much he loved me. He said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to do this.’ I knew. I just knew. I started screaming.”

She was driving home from Poplar where she works as a judge for Fort Peck’s tribal court. She called her brother and asked him to meet her at the house. When they arrived at the house, the front door was locked.

Just as they opened the door, they heard the blast of the rifle.

It was 5:10 p.m.

Today, she remains in counseling.

Gourneau, 53, filed a lawsuit claiming the school district and the state are responsible for her only son’s death. Roosevelt County District Judge David Cybulski last month dismissed the suit due to a lack of facts.

Gorneau's attorney, Solomon Neuhardt of Billings, has filed an appeal with the Montana Supreme Court.

Dalton's death followed the suicides of six students, and at least 20 attempted suicides, during a six-month period in Poplar, about 20 miles east of Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The suicides prompted tribal officials to declare an emergency. Federal health officials were sent in for several months to provide counseling and devise a prevention strategy.

Gourneau said the suicide cluster was well-known across the reservation at the time of Dalton’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 such a vulnerable atmosphere.

Indian Health Service officials said at the time of Dalton's death they believed the crisis had passed.

“What I want is for Dalton’s story to be told,” Gourneau said. “His story needs to be told because those practices still exist here. It has nothing to do with whether we have the right kind of policies. We just don’t have the right kind of people running the school district. Children’s pain cannot be ignored. How can a teacher teach every day and not notice?”

Her lawsuit named as defendants school district superintendent Henry Hamill, the school board and the state of Montana.

Hamill has since left the school district. Pain, who was the principal at the time of Dalton’s incident, is now one of two co-superintendents. Pain would not comment on the lawsuit.

The suit seeks unspecified financial compensation for damages and costs, but Gourneau and her attorney said the case is not about money.

“Roxanne’s primary goal, and a very noble one, is to raise awareness of suicides and suicide attempts among the administration and other school officials and getting more help for the students."

Gourneau said she wants school officials’ admittance that they erred. She also wants changes in people and practices. She has a grandson, whom she calls her “second coming,” who will be attending Wolf Point public schools in the future.

“I want Dalton to know when he’s looking down from heaven that I’ve helped fix this.”

Cindy Uken's reporting on Montana's suicide epidemic was undertaken with the help of a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.  

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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