Student Well-Being

Alone on the Range: S.D. Psychologist Covers Far-Flung Systems

By Jessica Portner — April 19, 2000 | Corrected: June 03, 2020 7 min read
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Corrected: This article gave the incorrect name and location of the South Dakota school mentioned in this story. The high school where the principal also doubles as a counselor is in Kimball, S.D.

An hour before pale-yellow light begins to lap across the fields of winter wheat, Tim Harmon is already whizzing down the highway that cuts through this hinterland to reach his first patient before the school bell rings.

PART II: April 19, 2000
Suicide: Many Schools
Fall Short on Prevention

Prevention: Los Angeles
Reaches Out

One School Strives
To Be Kinder, Gentler

Memphis: A District Under Emotional Renovation

S.D. Psychologist
Alone on the Range

Budget Battles
And Mental-Health Care

Gay Students: A Vulnerable Group

For More Information

PART I: April 12, 2000
Image Complex Set of Ills Spurs Rising Teen Suicide Rate

About This Series
To Learn More

Like a one-man emotional ER, the tireless school psychologist bolts into a classroom and conducts a 15-minute one-on-one counseling session with a student who threatened to hang himself last year. Then, satisfied that the boy is stabilized, he speeds off to his next case, at a school more than 100 miles east.

Mr. Harmon treks 3,000 miles a month, spreading his time among five school systems flung across the vast Dakota plains, conducting IQ tests, unearthing tales of child abuse, and sometimes thwarting a suicide.

Last year, he saved a 16-year-old girl poised to leap out of a school’s third-floor restroom window. “I just happened to be there in time to grab her and pull her back in,” he said.

Half the schoolchildren in the United States who seek mental-health care get it at school. But districts, with rare exceptions, give low priority to professional mental-health services.

As a result, school psychologists and social workers are spread thin. In the United States, the ratio of school psychologists to students is about 1-to-1,500.

With a bigger-than-average caseload—2,000 students—in one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country, Mr. Harmon is spread thinner than most.

Mr. Harmon is quick to point out that South Dakota has more garden-variety psychoses per capita than most regions of the country. The state ranks third-highest in the nation for teenage suicides, with a rate that’s double the national average: Roughly 11 of every 100,000 10- to 19-year-olds in the state take their own lives.

At the same time, the economically struggling state devotes little money to mental health. Fiscally conservative lawmakers recently abandoned the state’s requirement that every district hire a guidance counselor—people mental-health experts see as well-placed antennae to detect and transmit valuable information about students in trouble.

Under such circumstances, the 80 school psychologists in South Dakota—like their overworked colleagues in other states—are asked to do little more than conduct the mandatory diagnostic tests for special education and gifted classes. But Mr. Harmon, 32, deplores desk duty. He sees his job as psychological triage: “You leave the little fires burning until you can put out the big ones.”

Barren Horizon

Racing across the monotonously flat landscape—interrupted only by haystacks, grain elevators, and the occasional lonesome clump of trees—Mr. Harmon said one reason teenagers here tend to be more despondent than most is that they and their families see few opportunities on the horizon.

As he listens to President Clinton over the car radio issuing an upbeat assessment of the nation’s robust economy at the turn of the new millennium, Mr. Harmon shakes his head: “The economy isn’t booming over here.”

A decade ago, 90 percent of the families in this southern swatch of South Dakota farmed. Today, 60 percent have jobs in agriculture. Farm prices are at a historic low; people are selling their equipment and taking jobs at truck stops or migrating to Sioux Falls or Rapid City.

As he pulls his weather-beaten Chevrolet Prizm into the Platt High School parking lot, Mr. Harmon points out that the frustrations of out-of-work farmers can translate into domestic violence.

On a recent school assignment to compile a wish list for 2000, one 4th grader Mr. Harmon counsels expressed a typical sentiment: “I wish crop prices would go up so Mom and Dad would stop fighting.”

As he enters the teachers’ lounge at Platt, Mr. Harmon finds out about three cases of child abuse, one divorce, and a parent’s suicide attempt in less time than it takes teachers to finish their morning coffee and muffins.

Then comes the most bizarre tale of the morning: A junior told her teacher that her parents have been holding parties at their home where they offered up her and her two sisters as sex slaves to their drug-addicted guests. “The kids were offered as door prizes,” Mr. Harmon said.

Before leaving the school, Mr. Harmon heads upstairs to visit one of his regular clients—Jeff Vanderheiden, a hulking, 6-foot-3-inch junior who suffers from severe depression. The 18-year-old threatened to kill himself twice before anyone called Mr. Harmon for help last year. With 95 students, Platt High School is so small that the principal also serves as a counselor—a role Mr. Harmon said is counterproductive. Students are reluctant to reach out to their chief disciplinarian if they have an emotional problem, he said.

As soon as Mr. Harmon found out about Jeff’s second suicide attempt, he drove the teenager to the nearest hospital himself—120 miles away. Jeff needs regular psychological counseling, but the nearest clinic is 90 miles from school. County mental- health clinics already are bulging with adult patients, and they don’t make house calls. If Mr. Harmon didn’t drive more than two hours from his home to counsel the adolescent at school every other week, no one would.

And Jeff says he’s grateful to have someone to talk to.

“This year, I literally wanted to end it all. I had a difficult time making friends,” he said after a brief chat with Mr. Harmon. “Tim helps me. He’s like concrete. My road was so bumpy until he filled it out with his advice.”

Routine Testing

Since he can’t provide one-on-one therapy sessions with every student in his 145-square-mile region, Mr. Harmon uses the academic-testing sessions he’s required to conduct to determine whether a youngster has emotional problems that need attention.

In a given month, he administers 30 tests; while he’s diagnosing verbal acuity and reasoning skills, he’s also on the lookout for signs of depression or sociopathic tendencies.

Today, a chatty 6-year-old boy is zipping through a routine IQ test. As the boy flips through dozens of cue cards of animal pictures and parallelograms designed to test memory, Mr. Harmon casually ask the kindergartner about his family. His father, he says, has moved out of the house, and he hasn’t seen him much since.

Mr. Harmon tracked down the boy’s teacher after the test to tell her about the family situation. The teacher said that might explain why the youngster had been more withdrawn lately. It might also explain why the bright boy scored below average on the IQ test.

“He may be having emotional problems due to the family’s instability,” said Mr. Harmon, who will retest the boy at a later date.

That afternoon, Mr. Harmon drove the 100 miles back to his hometown school in Kimball for a session of play therapy with a volatile 5th grader.

In a cramped utility room—the only quiet spot available at Kimball Elementary School—Mr. Harmon asked the boy to set up the rules for a made-up game called Pinball 2000. Mr. Harmon said the 10-year-old has “anger control” issues—he once threw his 3-year-old sister down a flight of stairs—and he needs to learn how to obey rules because his home environment is unstructured.

“Parents aren’t raising kids with rules,” Mr. Harmon said. “They should discipline them while they’re young, and later give children freedom. But they do the opposite: give the young ones freedom and then micromanage the teens, which just makes kids aggressive.”

Many of the parents here really don’t want his help. In fact, the prevailing sentiment in the rural communities he serves is that the church, not psychologists, should tend to children’s emotional needs. The idea is that psychology goes against the Bible’s teaching because it preaches reliance on oneself instead of God.

“They think that psychologists are the spawn of Satan,” said Mr. Harmon, who usually introduces himself to parents simply as a school employee.

In addition, the pioneering spirit of self-reliance here has had the effect of muting calls for additional state aid for such services.

Bob Mercer, a spokesman for Gov. William J. Janklow, said rural districts in Mr. Harmon’s region that are losing population should cut other administrative jobs if they want to hire more counselors.

“How do you deliver services in a state where population is declining? They must be more efficient,” Mr. Mercer said.

One principal said that with what schools can afford to pay counselors—$27,000 a year—it’s hard to find qualified applicants in any case.

Donna Knipers, a special education teacher at Platt High School who functions as the de facto counselor, said she is worried that more students like Jeff are roaming the halls with suicidal thoughts.

“I can trust my gut instincts, but we need someone here who can intervene when there’s a crisis,” Ms. Knipers said. “I don’t feel comfortable handling matters that are literally life and death.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Alone on the Range: S.D. Psychologist Covers Far-Flung Systems


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