The Failing of a Town

Revised May 3, 2016: If the happenings from two months weren’t enough of a wake-up call for Livingston, Montana – confederate flags appeared raised in back of several high school students’ pick ups. This follows the racial harassment of a newly enrolled black student to Park High School.

Confederate flags

Originally published March 9, 2016

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Mahatma Ghandi

A couple of weeks ago I read a report of two teenage suicides in Livingston, Montana. Livingston is a town of 7,000 people known as the windiest town in Montana and being nestled in the mountains a stones throw from Yellowstone National Park. Livingston is also only 100 miles from where I live, so this hits home for me.


The one case that has been getting the most attention is that of seventeen year old Deon Gillen.

Nearly two years before 17-year-old Deon Gillen took his own life Feb. 14, his parents sued the Livingston School District saying officials didn’t do enough to protect their son from a long pattern of brutal bullying from his classmates. The assaults and harassment Gillen suffered while a student at Sleeping Giant Middle School were so severe and prolonged, the boy was diagnosed by a Billings Clinic doctor as suffering from aggravated post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the suit.

Deon said some boys were often mean to him, calling him “stupid” and “retarded.” The revelation prompted a parent-teacher conference in March that year. The parents explained they felt they were “not being heard” and told the teacher Deon had talked about hurting himself because of the ongoing bullying.

About two weeks after that conference, Deon was taken to the emergency room in Livingston after an incident while at a roller skating event at the Civic Center that left him hysterical and again talking about hurting himself. At the emergency room, doctors discovered heavy bruising on his arms and knuckle imprints, the suit states. Deon eventually admitted he was punched by the same boy who had previously harassed him. He told a counselor at the emergency room that he was repeatedly bullied at school and had thoughts of suicide.

The suit states Sara Gillen contacted Sleeping Giant principal Lisa Rosberg, who is named among the defendants in the lawsuit, to explain what had occurred. Rosberg informed the mother she had problems in the past with the student who had been bullying Deon. Rosberg said the boy was “sneaky and hard to catch.” Rosberg promised to look into it and suggested Deon’s parents file a complaint with Livingston Police Department.

At this time, Rosberg, the principal, arranged an office meeting between Deon and one of the students he said bullied him. The suit said Deon was extremely emotional when he was picked up from school. Arranging such a meeting had been mentioned in discussions between the Gillens and faculty but was rejected.

Sara Gillen met with Rosberg the next morning and told her no more meetings were to take place. According to the suit, Rosberg said she was sorry Deon was upset, but special accommodations would not be made for his social interaction with other students when he went to high school the next year.

Rosberg recommended the parents just “drop the whole thing,” according to the lawsuit.

Deon took art lessons that summer and attended three different summer camps. He enjoyed his first week at Park High School and was excited to be in an art class. His schedule was adjusted to avoid class with students who bullied him in the past, but he shared classes with some of them.

His emotional problems returned, and Deon said he was afraid to attend the same classes with the boys who bullied him in addition to seeing them in the hallways and lunchroom. Although school administrators agreed to adjust his schedule, Deon again expressed suicidal feelings. He was admitted to Billings Clinic again and diagnosed with depression with psychotic features, anxiety and aggravated PTSD. (Billings Gazette)

Livingston MT

Now Deon is gone; a victim … not only of his bullies, but of the school he and his parents entrusted his safety to. But there’s more to blame than even the school. Deon Gillen was a victim of Livingston. He was a victim of his classmates who did nothing when they surely knew what was happening. He was a victim of their parents who were either too busy or didn’t feel it necessary to instill the values of being a good human being in their children by getting involved. And he was also indirectly victimized by all of those who think of themselves as community leaders. 

This town of 7,000 apparently has created a community personality of having a blind eye (or two). They’ve made it alright to ignore the plight of their neighbors no matter how desperate they may be.  They’ve created a community that is community by its name only … not by its actions.

“It takes a whole village to raise a child”

“It takes a whole village to raise a child.” This Igbo and Yoruba (Nigeria) proverb exists in different forms in many African languages. The basic meaning is that child upbringing is a communal effort. The responsibility for raising a child is shared with the larger family (sometimes called the extended family). Everyone in the family participates especially the older children, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even cousins. It is not unusual for African children to stay for long periods with their grandparents or aunts or uncles. Even the wider community gets involved such as neighbors and friends. Children are considered a blessing from God for the whole community. This communal responsibility in raising children is also seen in the Sukuma (Tanzania) proverb “One knee does not bring up a child” and in the Swahili (East and Central Africa) proverb “One hand does not nurse a child.” (Igbo and Yoruba (Nigeria) Proverb)  

I recent pieces I’ve written about how I believe a community is really just a platform or naked infrastructure on which the activities of its residents are performed. This platform is not formally defined, but rather takes the form of what inhabits it, tangible and otherwise. These activities are dependent upon the array of needs and opportunities its populace encounters, how they address them as well as the influences they accept, deny and nurture. These influences can include meaningful communications, existing organizations (government and other) as well as social norms, ideals and community expectations. In the context of Livingston, it is the small business community, the civic leaders and the metaphorical Front Porches they congregate on as well as the attitudes, norms and accepted behaviors that have become part of the community’s personality.

Now what does this say about Livingston and what they’ve embraced as the behaviors they’ve quilted into the fabric of their community. In the case of Deon Gillen … there wouldn’t be much complimentary.

It’s easy to say your community is great. It’s easy to refer to lower crime statistics or look back at the 4th of July parade with pride. And it’s easy to brag about how much money was raised at the annual Breast Cancer Society’s Walk. After all, the whole town was full of pink shirts.

But “being easy” is exactly the case. These are defined goals the town leaders – the mayor, the police chief, the school board, etc. can all pat each on the back about … and afterwards have a congratulatory lunch at Joe’s Cafe.

Bullying and teenage psychological problems don’t lend themselves well to numbers and success stories. These stories are the ones most people hardly hear. They’re the stories of Deon and his fellow classmate who also ended their life the same week. They’re the stories that are only told if a diary is read the day after. They’re the stories nobody wants to hear at exactly the time they need to be heard.

When the Billings Gazette article came out the public outcry was harsh, so harsh that the high school shut down their Facebook page, attempted to discredit the report and enacted a locked door policy during school hours. Just the time they have should embraced taking responsibility … they circled the wagons. This was not unexpected though.

I wish that was the end of the story however. But not two weeks after Deon’s tragedy, two more people in Livingston committed suicide. This time it was two adults and they received barely a footnote in the paper. Not only had Livingston failed its youth, it failed their adults as well. In a separate article I read that Park County, of which Livingston is the county seat, has the highest suicide rate in the state; in a state that has the highest rate in the country. All this is before the latest rash of incidents. This dubious distinction is no small feat, but probably not one they’ll include in the Chamber’s next promo brochure.

And just this morning an article in Billings Gazette documented the alarming increase in child abuse cases in Montana. The article states cases have nearly doubled in 2015 from just a year previous. Many attribute this to increased meth use or alcohol abuse. Regardless, there will always be reasons. The question should be where is the first line of defense – the community? These statistics are emblematic of the decay of our Middle Ring, especially in rural areas where the geography of neighborly interaction takes more effort.

“Change Your Mind”

Let me go back to the beginning of this piece. Livingston is the windiest town in Montana and probably one of the top in the country. I can’t believe that given the choice of walking to local coffee shop or staying at home and making coffee yourself, you would choose the former? I imagine they don’t in Livingston either. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume the town has a high degree of isolation and a high number of shut-ins.

We’ll never prevent these stories from being written. But we can change the ending; and we can work as communities to do everything in our collective powers that they don’t turn out like Deon’s. It’s the attitudes and expectations we create as communities that will determine the stories that voice our communities; the stories that tell us who we really are.

Each community has characteristics that can determine its social interactions. In Livingston its the wind. But that doesn’t mean they have to just accept the consequences of it. Rather the community can use this hurdle to serendipitous socialization and neighborly encounters to create venues and avenues to overcome it. Because of its climate, Livingston should be making special efforts to reach out to its most vulnerable. This may seem a bit obsessive – but obviously something has to be done.


For two years I’ve stood on my soapbox and preached the need for us to rebuild the relationships with those around us in our physical neighborhoods. I’ve stressed focusing on our commonalities not our differences. This is especially important in this contentious election year. These Middle Ring relationships and the actions that come from them are what is going to determine the personality and character of our where we live. It will determine what we do when someone, say one of our children like Dion, is in trouble. It’s how we raise them and whether we teach them to be empathetic and compassionate. It’s whether we view ideology as a virtue or an obstacle. It’s whether NIMBYism is the norm or a condemnable exception. It’s whether we confront someone for bigoted talk and attitudes … or we just let it slide. These are the socially expected attitudes and norms that determine what we do when it may be uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so. They determine our communities’ character.

It’s not easy to make the effort to do the right thing. It’s easier just to go with flow and expect someone else will do it. But normally no one does it. 

Be the one that does. And who knows … maybe someone else will start doing it too.


If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.


You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+.

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