I'd love to see the state and the education establishment abandon Common Core and similar exercises in faux-accountability and paperwork. But that won't happen with opponents claiming that Common Core kills Indian kids:

We’ve buried eight kids down on that reservation in the last week. We need to sit up and pay attention. I’m not naive enough to think the Common Core is the… is what’s causing all of this, but it’s part of the effect. We’ve got teachers down there who have just quit teaching it, because the kids can't do it [Rep. Elizabeth May (R-27/Pine Ridge), remarks on House Bill 1223, South Dakota House, 2015.02.24, timestamp 21:12].

At this point, Speaker Dean Wink (R-29/Howes) interrupted Rep. May to pull her back to the motion at hand, which was not the Common Core-repealing House Bill 1223 itself but the question of whether to place HB 1223 on the calendar for debate. Even if the House had allowed that debate to happen, the suggestion that Common Core leads to Indian youth suicide sounds more like a high school debate nuke-war disad (the classic argument that demonstrates that any federal policy change leads to mushroom clouds) than a useful legislative contention.

Suicide is a serious problem for our Native neighbors. The Pine Ridge Reservation has had waves of youth suicides since well before the adoption of Common Core. Dr. Delphine Red Shirt says the despair driving these suicides comes from the culture of fear imposed imposed by colonialism. Maybe we could make the argument that imposing Western rationalist curriculum standards on Indian reservations is one aspect of colonialism. But with the Department of Education warning that repealing Common Core would only require implementing new (Western rationalist) standards, and with Common Core opponents suggesting new standards, the colonialism critique doesn't get us anywhere on HB 1223.

But Rep. May wasn't making that deep critique. She seems to have been colonializing her Indian neighbors again, exploiting their pain to advance her political goal of the moment. This one ill-considered rhetorical tactic only weakened her position, opening education policy critics to ridicule from the national press, which lump her suicide claim in with other wild accusations made by Common Core opponents.

The Huffington Post lets Rep. May try to explain herself:

May clarified her comments for The Huffington Post, noting that, “Our suicide rate keeps increasing on the [Pine Ridge] reservation, our kids are under a lot of distress socially and economically.”

Indeed, the suicide rates of Native youth are disproportionately high around the country.

May further said she thinks the Common Core State Standards put too much emphasis on standardized testing.

“Very simple, testing, testing testing. They have to teach to the test. You know and I know and every teacher in the trenches on the reservation know it,” wrote May in an email. “It never is about children and teachers it's about a bureaucracy.”

“There’s kids who just won't go to school," she added over the phone. "This is not even just about Indian children, but about all of our children. We see it more in the depressed areas of our country. Not all children learn the same. We can't put everybody inside a box, it doesn’t work."

The Common Core State Standards do not necessarily increase amounts of standardized testing, but tests aligned with the standards have been noted for their rigor [Rebecca Klein, "South Dakota Legislator Suggests Common Core Contributed To Kids' Deaths," Huffington Post, 2015.02.27].

We can dismantle Rep. May's elaboration on straight logic:

  1. "Our suicide rate keeps increasing" indicates the problem has arisen from and will continue as a result of other factors. HB 1223 would not have solved.
  2. "too much emphasis on standardized testing" has been a critique of every standards movement (remember No Child Left Behind?). HB 1223 would have left the testing regime in place.
  3. "This is not even just about Indian children, but about all of our children"—then why did Rep. May's remarks on the House floor Tuesday talk about suicide among Indian children? Is there a spate of white youth suicides induced by Common Core that Rep. May left unmentioned? This comment sounds like Rep. May realizing she'd made a weak claim and trying to move the debate to a different topic.

We could beat back Common Core and other centralized intrusions on the art of good teaching with better, more practical arguments. Claiming that Common Core kills Indian kids only invites ridicule that prevents good arguments from being heard.


During and after his tenure as South Dakota's economic development chief under Governor Mike Rounds, Richard Benda was involved in some questionable financial deals. The Department of Legislative Audit's report issued last week found that Benda arranged a lucrative private contract for himself that posed a conflict of interest with his public position. The report increases by an order of magnitude the taxpayer dollars Benda took in reimbursements for questionable expenses, such as unnamed translators in the Philippines. He was a key player in two enormous and failed business projects tied to the EB-5 visa investment program.

The official story is that Benda shot himself in the stomach with a shotgun because of the stress associated the investigation and failure of his questionable activities. Some South Dakotans have questioned that official story, saying politics underlie the story.

But if you consider it unlikely that a somewhat successful middle-aged white man would kill himself in a rather inconvenient, unreliable, and painful way over several thousand dollars, consider the story of Richard Talley, a Colorado CEO who apparently dodged investigators by killing himself with a nail gun:

Title company CEO Richard Talley killed himself with a nail gun the very day auditors from a Texas title-insurance firm he worked for were likely to uncover years of embezzled escrow funds, according to a federal lawsuit.

Title Resources Guaranty Co. says in the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court that it first uncovered inequities in ledgers kept by Talley companies — American Title Services and America's Home Title — in late January, which it said "appeared to be altered to create the facade of balanced trust accounts."

When a closer look showed "large negative balances" in the accounts used to hold escrow funds on real estate deals that Talley companies oversaw, TRGC sent an audit team to see where the money had gone.

The lawsuit was filed in part to help learn that answer.

Talley, 56, killed himself at his home Feb. 4 with at least a half-dozen shots from a nail gun to the "trunk and head," according to the Arapahoe County coroner's office.

TRGC's audit team had requested a meeting with Talley earlier that day, presumably to ask him to explain the ledger discrepancies, the lawsuit says. He did not attend [David Migoya, "Uncovered Missing Escrow Funds Could Be Nail-Gun Suicide's Cause," Denver Post, 2014.02.12].

No word yet on how the fudge in Talley's ledgers stacks up against Benda's funky finances. But consider that while South Dakota's investigators took 31 days to issue an official statement on the cause of Benda's death, the Arapahoe County Coroner was able to declare Talley's cause of death in two days.

What Richard Benda and his friends did with our money is still a larger, more important story than exactly how he died. But Talley's grisly suicide reminds us that desperate humans do desperate things, and that Benda's suicide, while surprising and seemingly unlikely, is perfectly plausible (hmm... rather like evolution...).


Richard Benda killed himself, says Attorney General Marty Jackley. Benda shot himself in the gut, says the autopsy. Here's the full release:

PIERRE, S.D - Attorney General Marty Jackley announced today that the Division of Criminal Investigation has concluded its investigation into the death of Richard Benda, Sioux Falls.

On October 22, 2013, Benda was found dead in rural Charles Mix County by a family member, which was immediately reported to local law enforcement. The scene was secured by law enforcement at which time the Division of Criminal Investigation was contacted and asked to conduct a death investigation.

The autopsy, conducted by the Forensic Pathologist, Minnehaha County Coroner indicates that the cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen and ruled a suicide. No physical or digital evidence has been found to indicate foul play. The investigation scene reconstruction, interviews conducted, evidence collected at the scene and forensic testing do not indicate foul play and are consistent with the forensic autopsy findings. The forensic testing included, but was not limited to firearm functioning, ballistic testing, DNA and fingerprinting.

The Attorney General would like to thank the Charles Mix County Sheriff’s Office and federal authorities for their assistance during the death investigation. The Attorney General again offers condolences to the family and friends of Richard Benda during this most difficult time and appreciates the public further respecting these private family matters.

If you have any additional questions please contact Sara Rabern at 605-773-3215 [Attorney General Marty Jackley, press release, 2013.11.21].

Jackley gives no indication of the nature of the weapon used to explain the only prior press description of "a bullet hole in his side." Update 10:29 CST: In a follow-up email, the Attorney General's office confirms that the weapon was indeed a shotgun, and that that shotgun was the only weapon found on the scene.

Left out of the press release is an explicit conclusion that the death was deliberate suicide or some mishap with the shotgun. The fact that there were "interviews conducted" means that some folks were able to tell the Attorney General information that supports the conclusion of a self-inflicted wound. Perhaps now that they investigation is over, those folks can speak to the press and explain what leads the state to say Richard Benda took his own life.

At this point, I will add only this: If it was suicide, Benda must have wanted to suffer. Shooting oneself in the gut is an awful way to go.

Update 10:14 CST: The AG's office sends out a clarification, confirming that while Benda's brother-in-law Jim Johanneson found Benda's body on Tuesday, October 22, "it was determined that the date of death was Sunday, October 20."

Still not explained: How Jim Johanneson finds the body of a man who shot himself in the abdomen, sees no blood, and at first thinks the man had died of a heart attack.


Eric Abrahamson notes on the Black Hills Knowledge Network that South Dakota saw a substantial increase in the number of quitters over the past several years. A new CDC report on suicide finds that from 1999 to 2010, South Dakota's suicide rate rose 48.0%, to 23.5 per 100,000 population. The national suicide rate among folks aged 35 to 64 rose 28.4% to 17.6 per 100,000.

In Wyoming, the suicide rate is 31.1 per 100,000; in Minnesota, 16.0.

Suicide increased in 39 states in every region of the nation. But interestingly, the Northeast, where we Midwesterners like to think life is more complicated with all those crowded cities, has the lowest regional suicide rate of 13.9 per 100,000. The Midwest (in which the CDC includes South Dakota) is closer to average at 17.3. Those warmer, wider-open places where America's population has been shifting for the last four decades, the South and West, see higher suicide rates of 18.4 and 19.5.

In 2010, more than twice as many Americans killed themselves as killed others. Their preferred weapon of self-termination remains firearms, which accounted for 47% of suicides, followed by suffocation (23%) and poisoning (22%). Men who commit suicide have a much stronger preference to end it with a gun than do women: 52% of men committing suicide did so with a gun, compared to 31% of women committing suicide. 42% of women committing suicide in 2010 poisoned themselves.

I don't look at those gun numbers and think, "Clearly we need to get rid of guns" any more than I look at the female poisoning rates and think we need to ban pills and cleaners. But we should look at increasing numbers of people chickening out and higher rates of suicide in South Dakota and Wyoming than in Minnesota, Iowa, New York, and California and ask what economic and cultural feature make life unbearable for so many more people here.

We've talked a lot this past week about what makes people move from South Dakota to Minnesota and what might get them to move back. The answer to that question is likely tied to the question of why South Dakotans choose to end their lives more frequently than Minnesotans.


The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld South Dakota's requirement that doctors tell women they are more likely to kill themselves if they have an abortion. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals got it wrong.

The contested legal clause is the following portion of the statements SDCL 34-23A-10.1) requires South Dakota doctors to make to women seeking abortions:

(e) A description of all known medical risks of the procedure and statistically significant risk factors to which the pregnant woman would be subjected, including:
(i) Depression and related psychological distress;
(ii) Increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide;

Abortion does not subject women to more suicide. There is no post-abortion syndrome. Women with unwanted pregnancies are already in a group with higher incidence of mental health problems; having an abortion does not change that risk for mental health problems. The court has thus authorized the state to compel doctors to speak falsely and misleadingly to patients.

Read the court's opinion. You'll find the judges working very hard to say that the state doesn't have to demonstrate a causal relationship to force this speech. They offer this analogy in a footnote:

This difference may be better illustrated by an example less contentious than abortion. One recent study found that prolonged television viewing resulted in an "increased risk" of mortality for individuals in any given age group. See Anders Grøntved et al., Television Viewing and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, and All-Cause Mortality, 305 J. Am. Med. Assoc. 23:2448 (2011). We would not demand proof that television viewing itself directly caused the adverse outcome (for example, proof of an actual decline in the health of heart muscle tissue to a fatal level during viewing) before acknowledging that a prolonged television viewer is "subjected" to the increased risk of mortality. Indeed, a measure of increased risk based on a discrete, easily reportable event such as television viewing is useful precisely because of the difficulty of tracing exactly whether and how a given action combines with other factors to directly "cause" a particular death [Planned Parenthood v. Rounds, U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, 2012.07.24, p. 10].

Note that the analogy says it doesn't matter whether television kills or whether other conditions—obesity, depression, low intelligence—are the real causes of both increased television viewing and increased mortality. The analogy ignores the possibility that telling someone "people who watch TV die faster" may discourage people from watching TV but entirely miss the real cause of their mortality risk.

The court holds that the state need only demonstrate association, not causality, to justify its anti-abortion policy. Wow: I wish the Legislature would allow us environmentalists to appeal to that low bar when we advocate policy to address climate change associated with human activity.

The ruling appears to hinge around the use of the passive voice. The statute says "would be subjected." One would think that, since the statute is all about abortion, the clause includes an understood "by abortion." But the court makes agency and causality disappear right along with responsible medical practice. It doesn't matter to the judges or the state or the celebratory anti-abortion anti-woman theocrats that it's the stress of an unwanted pregnancy or prior health and social issues that have already placed abortion-seeking women in the mental-health-risk category.

Of course, if we are really interested in helping women make completely informed medical decisions, we now need to require South Dakota doctors to tell their pregnant patients that carrying their fetuses to term will subject them to an increased risk of death, higher than that experienced by pregnant women in numerous other industrialized nations.

But we won't tell them that, because our abortion laws aren't about straight science. South Dakota's abortion laws are about an ideological crusade to subjugate women to state control.


My friend Mr. Kurtz regularly discusses "red-state failure." He'll find another brief for his red-state failure folder in Nathan Johnson's latest blog post. Reporter Johnson reads some science and learns that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more likely to kill themselves in conservative states.

Dr. Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University studied LGB youth in 34 Oregon counties. He measured the supportiveness of their social environment by five metrics (quoted from this Medscape article, registration required)

  1. proportion of same-sex couples,
  2. proportion of Democrats,
  3. proportion of schools with gay-straight alliances,
  4. proportion of schools with anti-bullying policies specifically aimed at protecting gay students, and
  5. proportion of schools with antidiscrimination policies that included sexual orientation.

Anti-bullying legislation: you know, the kind of legal protections that the South Dakota Legislature again killed this year, leaving us one of four states with no such legislation. The kind of protection that the Rapid City school board showed the decency to implement last year, over the objection of a handful of anti-social activists.

Dr. Hartzenbuehler factored out other sociodemographic variables and found that gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens in unsupportive social environments were 20% more likely to kill themselves.

Now we can't exactly mandate that everyone register as Democrats (although HB 1217 sets a nice precedent for at least requiring everyone to read the Madville Times before registering Republican). Increasing the proportion of same-sex couples is probably beyond our policy reach. We could ask same-sex couples to make their presence known so young people have more role models to look to, but that's asking a lot even of adults who may keep their relationships quiet to avoid harassment in unsupportive communities. Changes to school policy offer the easiest route to helping young people; Dr. Hartzenbuehler says it's pretty simple and straightforward for schools to adopt policies that can reduce the chance that some of their students will kill themselves.

But don't think that starting a club and passing anti-bullying rules will make life perfect for non-straight kids. Hartzenbuehler's research finds that, independent of community supportiveness, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are still five times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual youth.


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