KALISPELL, Mont. — By the time the third teenager had died by suicide since the start of the school year, the Flathead Valley was desperate for unity.
The community had been jittery for months. Supporters of former president Donald Trump, adamant that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election, were driving through town in pickups lined with Trump flags, Confederate flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags featuring a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike at government intrusion. The coronavirus pandemic had cleaved neighbors into camps for and against masks. A popular Facebook group featuring wildlife photos and local events had degenerated into a forum for politics, bullying and suspicion of the new people moving here.
The October death by suicide of the ninth local teenager in 16 months prompted offers of counseling, training for teachers and visits from national suicide prevention experts. But it also whiplashed into partisan recriminations, as residents lashed out in public forums against the superintendent of schools for failing to impose dress codes and discipline and to disallow cellphones, against parents for not securing their plentiful firearms — used in several suicides — and against supporters of masks and other pandemic restrictions for stifling teenagers.
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