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Questions remain after death of Bismarck child: School denies bullying allegations

Sheldon Houle, uncle of Chance Houle, holds his favorite photo of Chance, who took his life on March 31 in Bismarck. The death of Chance has opened up a community conversation on the tragic and sensitive topics of bullying and suicide. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK—Nearly a month after Cherish "Chance" Houle's death, there are still more questions than answers about why he took his life.

Chance had been in foster care for a number of years, his family struggled with drugs and his father was just released from prison.

Chance, 12, who lived in Bismarck, considered himself a transgender child. A friend and family member said he preferred to go by the name Chance, which is his father's middle name.

Through numerous interviews, this is what the Bismarck Tribune learned about Chance.

The seventh-grader attended two different Bismarck schools this year, Wachter and Simle middle schools, according to the school district.

On March 31, Chance took his life.

Chance's foster parent declined to be interviewed. North Dakota foster parents must abide by licensing rules, which binds them to maintain confidentiality in all information pertaining to their foster child. The school district said Chance hadn't been in school since March 9, but could not comment on whether the absences were excused.

After interviewing people who knew Chance and having many interview requests denied, the circumstances of Chance's life remain unexplained. Foster parents, county social services and the school district are limited in what information they can release on a student or child in their care. The school district and Burleigh County Social Services maintain there were no reports or information that Chance was bullied, and yet "intense bullying at school" is referenced in an April 4 obituary, and Chance's uncle and a friend say they were both aware of conflicts he had with other students.

Sheldon Houle, Chance's uncle, said Chance had a difficult childhood, marked by issues at home and family members who struggled with drug addiction, including himself. He got out of prison in January and reconnected with his nephew, speaking with Chance whenever he could on social media, despite the restraints of his probation.

"I was reaching out to her, but I think she just gave up," Sheldon Houle said in a recent interview. "It's hard to deal with, and I know I could've done more."

Although Chance told friends and family that his preferred pronoun was "he," Sheldon Houle referred to Chance as "she."

Sheldon Houle, whose younger brother is Chance's father, was in prison for three years after being convicted of a federal drug charge. It was in prison where he discovered the Bible and decided to refocus his life, including efforts to get his own children, who are also in the foster care system, back.

He is staying at an inmate transition facility in Mandan, and he works at a local hotel and fast food restaurant. When a reporter met him at his job recently, he agreed to talk about Chance in hopes of bringing more awareness to suicide prevention and bullying, as well as how adults can better recognize the signs of a child who is struggling.

"I just don't want her death to be in vain .... Everybody that she knew and everybody that knew her is affected by this for the rest of their lives — even the ones that bullied her, I bet they're not going to bully anyone else anymore. I bet they're going to grow up and be parents and they're going to teach their kids," he said. "But it's a shame that this all had to happen, and it had to come to this."

Remembering Chance

Chance's parents and his siblings bounced around to various places in Minot, New Town and Bismarck, according to Sheldon Houle.

Chance was close to his father, and they wrote letters while he was in prison. Chance also knew the exact date of his father's release, which was something he told his uncle he was looking forward to.

"We talked about family and all of us living together and doing good," Sheldon Houle said.

Now, Sheldon Houle worries about Chance's father, who has had to deal with the realities of Chance's death after being released from prison earlier this month.

"It's been a hard ordeal for all of us," he said.

Chance's mother didn't respond to requests for an interview, but Sheldon Houle said she was "taking (Chance's death) hard."

Sheldon Houle remembers Chance as being loving, ambitious and full of energy. A smiley kid with "those white teeth," who would hang on to him like a "little monkey" anytime Chance saw him.

Sheldon Houle said Chance came from a family of musicians, including Chance's father, who is a rapper. Sheldon Houle plays guitar. He was proud of Chance, who made his own music and sometimes added lyrics. Chance's YouTube channel features two techno-style songs, titled "Stronger" and "Trapped," which Sheldon Houle said explain what Chance was going through.

He said Chance never talked with him about bullying at school, but Chance would post about it on social media. Sheldon Houle believes Chance being transgender had "a lot to do with it," but he encouraged Chance to be who he "wants to be."

Chance also told a close friend that he was transgender right before he commited suicide.

Skye Rucker was friends with Chance since fourth grade. In fifth grade, Skye and her family moved out of state, but she and Chance remained close and spoke almost everyday through social media and text messages.

Skye said Chance was "upbeat" and loved taking photos and being outside. Chance also was clever and came up with a lot of puns.

"When he called himself Cherish, at recess he would slide down the slide and say, 'I cherish that slide,'" Skye said.

He also would doodle on paper.

"His drawings were really pretty. They were so detailed," she said.

Skye, too, said she was aware of conflicts Chance had with other students. There was one time when Chance sent her a video of what appeared to be Chance being beat up.

Skye asked Chance why that happened and who the girl was in the video hitting and kicking him. Two days later, Chance texted back telling her that he was OK and that he "planned all of it." He also told Skye that the girl who had punched and kicked him was "a girl who hates me."

Skye doesn't know if the video was real and she never found out who the other girl was. Days after the incident, Skye asked more questions and got the same response from Chance, that the whole incident was planned.

Skye said Chance didn't get bullied in fourth grade, and, in fact, he had a lot of friends and was "like a social butterfly."

"I think this all started when middle school set in," said Skye, who also said she didn't believe any teachers were aware of any incidents, but she told Chance to tell his foster family.

In January, Skye said she and Chance were having a normal conversation about movies and songs — Chance had sent her a link to Sean Kingston's song, "Beautiful Girls" — when Chance abruptly said "goodbye" and told her that he loved her.

After that, she continued to reach out to Chance, but he never responded to any of her messages. Around March 30, Chance called Skye and told her that he was transgender and asked her to call him Chance.

"I said, 'Oh, of course,' (and) he said something about people aren't accepting me ... I said, 'I'm sorry, I support you,'" Skye said. "He just seemed so out of it that day."

This wasn't the first time Chance told Skye he was transgender. For about six months, Skye had been calling Chance by his preferred name and gender.

Skye said she still has many questions about Chance's death.

"If I could say (anything else about Chance) in three words it's 'I love him,'" she said.

Investigation

After Chance's death, Bismarck Public Schools conducted an investigation into the allegations of bullying referenced in Chance's obituary.

Bismarck Public Schools Superintendent Tamara Uselman said in a recent interview that, while there were no reports or tips of bullying made to district administrators or staff, it is likely that Chance was struggling.

The district's investigation involved speaking with the principals at both middle schools Chance attended, and the principals spoke with staff.

The investigation was to follow up on whether there were any indications of bullying and to ensure staff and administrators provided any assistance requested. No evidence of bullying, such as videos or photos, was ever found.

"What I found was staff who stepped up to help, in every way they could, a young person that was struggling," Uselman said. "Without any other additional information, I can put closure on (the investigation)."

Any specific information about the bullying would be helpful and reviewed by administration, she said.

"Schools will investigate specific information, and so, again, if we have something to investigate ... we can act on it," Uselman said.

The district's parent advisory committee for Native American students sent a letter earlier this month to other Native American families after Chance's death.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of a young student, a community member, a relative, a young person who felt alone," the letter said. "We would like to invite the community to honor this student by resolving to reach out to others who may be different from ourselves ... We are thankful for the principals of the schools Chance attended and the school personnel who sought to help make transitions easier."

Earlier this month, a local TV station, KX News, interviewed the director of Burleigh County Social Services, Kim Osadchuk, who said bullying in school reported in Chance's obituary as "the cause of this suicide" was incorrect.

In response to a request for an interview, Osadchuk, the agency's director, said in a statement that bullying referenced in the obituary was unknown to her agency.

"It was never reported or documented to this agency, Bismarck Public Schools or the (Bismarck) Police Youth Bureau to allow for an opportunity to address the alleged bullying concerns," she said. "Bullying is taken very seriously by Burleigh County Social Services, as well as Bismarck Public Schools, in our partnering efforts to protect children from the harm that it causes."

Osadchuk declined to answer any further questions.

Uselman said in a follow-up interview that the district did consult with Chance's parent/guardian in its investigation. Burleigh County Social Services also reviewed all of the school district's records.

"To assign the suicide to bullying is simply false. However, a student obviously has huge struggles if they contemplate suicide, and so the community misreads that when the district says there was no evidence of bullying, that it sounds like we're washing our hands, and I can tell you that didn't happen," she said.

Suicide among LGBT youth

North Dakota has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average. According to data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in 2016, North Dakota's suicide rate was 19 per 100,000 people, compared to the national rate of 13.42.

In 2016, nine youth, age 18 and younger, died by suicide statewide, and the total number of North Dakota resident deaths that were reported as suicide was 134, according to Alison Traynor, director of the state Department of Health's Suicide Prevention Program.

The state's most recent youth behavioral health survey — which is administered in the spring of odd years to students in grades 7-12 — shows that youth suicide attempts and students reporting that they felt sad and hopeless continues to increase.

"We see that more youth are struggling but, at the same time, it does show us that the vast majority of youth that struggle with thoughts of suicide and symptoms of depression are reaching out for help," Traynor said.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are at a greater risk for depression, suicide and substance abuses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are also at an increased risk of being bullied.

To accommodate transgender students, Bismarck Public Schools will work with these students on a case-by-case basis, according to superintendent Tamara Uselman.

Uselman said she is aware of a few students within the school system who identify as transgender. The district does not keep a list of these students, but, in each school building, principals are aware of any students or parents who have stepped forward to share this information.

For transgender students, school administrators will work with them at their respective schools, for instance, with a bathroom assignment. The district makes these decisions in a way that creates "a peaceful environment for everyone on campus," Uselman said of a process which works to not create any issues of discomfort for any students.

"Our goal is to make sure the student who is in transition on gender has a place to shower and use the bathroom without feeling awkward," she said.

There are a variety of reasons why youth would not report bullying.

Social norms make a big difference in whether youth feel comfortable reporting bullying, according to Traynor. This can mean "codes of silence" within a school and how administrators frame bullying and reporting.

"It can involve messages from administrators, but it also can involve the group of youth and how they're interacting with each other," she said.

Bullying policies

Bullying is defined in North Dakota Century Code, and, in 2011, a state law was passed requiring school districts to write a policy prohibiting students from bullying.

Bismarck Public Schools has policies on bullying, discrimination and harassment. The bullying policies require staff and administrators to report all known or suspected violations of the policy.

Bullying initiated off campus or online limits the district to where it only has the authority to "impose disciplinary measures if the bullying substantially disrupted the educational environment or posed a true threat."

Similarly, the district investigates all reports or complaints of discrimination or harassment.

Century Code also requires school districts to provide a minimum of eight hours of training every two years to elementary, middle and high school teachers and administrators. The training is based on the annual needs assessment of the district and includes trauma, social and emotional learning, suicide prevention, bullying and behavioral health symptoms and risks.

Bismarck Public Schools provide information on suicide and bullying, among other topics, at all grade levels. This includes presentations on these topics by elementary school counselors. Library media specialists present on cyberbullying in grades 3, 6 and 9, and a variety of related topics are taught at the middle and high schools.

Also, last year, the Bismarck Public Schools created a task force on bullying, which reviewed district policies. The group made no changes to the current bullying policy, but created a list of recommendations, which the Bismarck School Board approved. The recommendations include new training on mandatory reporting and anti-discrimination policies for staff, as well as more review among school administrators of building-level student behavior data.

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