November was a difficult month for our community, as we faced two tragic deaths by suicide of both a former and current high school student. I wanted to reach out in this special edition newsletter and specifically address district efforts around student social and emotional health.
To provide some background context, I have been a friend and neighbor to the Lee family for the past ten years, so their son’s death affected me deeply. One question that comes up in every conversation with family, friends, the school, and the larger community is “why?” And the honest response is that there is not now and may never be a definitive answer. And that uncertainty frightens us, which may lead to wild speculation and blame.
I can share with you that at the community memorial service, organized by his Gunn friends and attended by several hundred friends and families, Peter Lee, Cameron’s dad, spoke fondly about living in Palo Alto and described his three kids’ experiences in Palo Alto schools from kindergarten through high school as being equally wonderful, caring, and supportive.
PAUSD Crisis Response Team
The district response to the recent suicides was immediate. Superintendent Max McGee sent an e-mail to every family in the district, informing parents of the tragedy and discussing how we can all work together to support our children during this difficult time. (See Dr. McGee's most recent letter at the end of this newsletter.)
I spent the first week of November at Gunn High School every day, where counselors from Gunn and Paly, Adolescent Counseling Services, Stanford Hospital, KARA Grief Support, Cassy (Counseling and Support Services for Youth) and our PAUSD District Nurse attended to our secondary students and teachers. That week, Principal Denise Hermann and Superintendent Max McGee held a parent information night at Spangenberg Auditorium for hundreds of parents, which included a panel discussion with Dr. Shashank Joshi (Stanford), Dr. Meg Durbin (PAMF), Sami Hartley (Stanford), Kathleen Blanchard and Vic Ojakian about suicide prevention and youth health and well-being. Principal Hermann and Dr. McGee stayed late to answer dozens of questions from concerned parents. Throughout the week, dozens of parents and all the School Board members brought food to support the Crisis Response Team and Gunn’s faculty and staff. The Gunn ASB Student Executive Council convened with Principal Denise Hermann to discuss spontaneous memorials and efforts to care for the entire student body. Paly also held a parent information evening and offered extra counselors to support students.
School Board Focus
So, how do we, as a caring, supportive community, keep our kids safe through these tumultuous teenage years? What is the role of families, schools, media, and the larger community? These are critical, complex questions we grapple with every day in our work as parents, advocates, and teachers of Palo Alto’s youth.
When I joined the School Board in 2012, the district was revising its Strategic Plan, a five-month effort informed by 30 individual interviews, 11 focus groups, 6 community-wide surveys with thousands of responses, and multiple School Board discussions. I worked hard to add a new focus area with a goal to “support the social-emotional needs of students and celebrate personal growth across multiple dimensions, while ensuring a positive, safe, and healthy environment.” (See the 2013 Strategic Plan HERE.)
This focused goal is always at the forefront of my mind as we discuss complex issues that come before the Board, as we set focused goals each year, and as we develop Board policies that guide and reflect the work of the district. Last year, I spent many hours working with district staff to develop our current bullying policy, striving to ensure that every student feels safe in our schools.
For the past three years, I have consistently attended Project Safety Net’s monthly meetings, discussing ideas for suicide prevention and sharing resources with community agencies that focus on the health and well-being of youth. This group is organized by a team of dedicated professionals from PAUSD and the City of Palo Alto, with dozens of community partners. One amazing achievement this year is the completion of the 164-page Comprehensive Suicide Prevention Toolkit for Schools, compiled by mental health experts from Stanford University’s School of Medicine, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Project Safety Net, PAUSD, the HEARD Alliance, and KARA Grief Support. Many of its recommendations were implemented this November. (http://pausd.org/parents/services/health/documents/ComprehensiveSuicidePreventionToolkitforSchools.pdf).
Elementary, Middle, High Schools
While certainly not an exhaustive list, I wanted to share some specific highlights of what's happening right now around our district with regards to student health and well-being.
DISTRICT LEVEL: Superintendent Max McGee has been extremely visible around the community, attending morning coffees at all district schools and many community organizations as well. He always begins his talks with our PAUSD Vision Statement: “We develop our students' knowledge, critical thinking and problem solving skills, and nurture their curiosity, creativity, and resilience, empowering every child to reach his or her fullest intellectual, social, and creative potential.” Dr. McGee has also convened a Minority Achievement and Talent Development Advisory Committee, tasked with looking at how the district can “assure underrepresented minority and disadvantaged students have the necessary opportunities, conditions, and supports that will empower and enable them to succeed as well as both realize and maximize their full intellectual, creative, and social potential.”
ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS: Faculty, staff, and a parent advisory committee worked last year to create a new Elementary Report Card, which begins with reflections on a child’s social and emotional competencies and personal teacher comments, before moving to academics. Also, more than half of our elementary schools are now using Project Cornerstone’s Asset Building Champions (ABC) program (http://www.projectcornerstone.org/html/schools_parents_abc.html), in addition to the Kimochi’s social and emotional learning program to support the formation of healthy relationships and increase students’ social skills. (http://kimochiseducation.tumblr.com/).
MIDDLE SCHOOLS: All three schools now have a strong 5th/6th grade transition program in place (JLS Panther Camp, Jordan Jaguar Journey, Terman Tiger Camp). All have social kindness programs, school climate committees, Unity Day programs, and increased efforts around inclusion, disabilities awareness, and co-teaching in the classroom.
HIGH SCHOOLS: Both high schools are currently moving through the WASC (Western Association of School and Colleges) Accreditation process, and there are regular opportunities for both schools to reflect and focus on school improvement goals to benefit our entire secondary student population. Also, QPR Trainings (Question, Persuade, Refer – a Suicide Prevention strategy) are now fully integrated into the Living Skills curriculum for every high school student. The number of counselors at Gunn has doubled in the past two years and a “Counselor on Call” has been added.
Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to the problem of teen suicide. As a School Board, we will continue to have meaningful conversations about how to define and measure “success,” and how to balance academic achievement with student social, emotional, and physical health. We will continue to support innovation, improve curriculum, create and maintain schools that are safe, supportive, and welcoming to every student, reach out to at-risk kids, raise awareness about disabilities and increase tolerance of differences, and, most importantly, involve our students in the search for ongoing solutions to tough issues.
The School District will continue to partner with the City of Palo Alto with Project Safety Net, as we strengthen our efforts to educate parents, increase communication among all community stakeholders, and provide supportive environments in which all children can thrive. I always welcome your ideas, thoughts, and comments about how we can improve and expand our educational efforts. Thank you for electing me to represent you on the PAUSD School Board. This work has been both humbling and rewarding and I appreciate your support.
My best to you and your families,
Some Facts About Suicide
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24 (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/youth_suicide.html.) 81% of the reported deaths are males and 19% are females. Girls, however, are more likely to report attempting suicide than boys. Imitative behavior (“contagion”) plays a role in suicide. Recent studies have concluded that media coverage of suicide is connected to the increase—or decrease—in subsequent suicides, particularly among adolescents (Sisask & Värnik, 2012). High volume, prominent, repetitive coverage that glorifies, sensationalizes or romanticizes suicide has been found to be associated with an increase in suicides (Bohanna and Wang, 2012). There is also evidence that when coverage includes detailed description of specific means used, the use of that method may increase in the population as a whole (Yip, et al., 2012). http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-04-01/news/ct-met-teen-suicide-20120401_1_teen-suicides-suicide-cluster-suicide-cluster
If you would like more information about warning signs of suicide, please visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at: https://www.afsp.org/. If you would like to be more involved with Project Safety Net and the community efforts around suicide prevention and youth health and well-being, go to: (http://www.psnpaloalto.com/) If you would like more information about accessing mental health services, go to: http://www.heardalliance.org/)
Letter from the Superintendent
November 4, 2014
Early this morning, I received a call from the Palo Alto Police Department that a junior from Gunn High School had just lost their life to suicide. We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy, and our heartfelt sympathy go to his family and friends as they grieve today and through the coming days and months.
We alerted the administration, counselors and community partners early and began working with our students and staff first thing this morning to provide critical counseling and support services. At this time of year and for the next several weeks, individuals suffering from depression and/or feelings of hopelessness are especially vulnerable. As we all know, reading or hearing about suicides in the media can sometimes cause individuals who may be at risk to feel even worse. It is imperative for us to work together and be especially vigilant in keeping all of our children safe.
We have informed all of our schools and our entire staff will be watching for any signs of students who may need support and care following this tragedy. Our counselors are prepared to work with any student or family at a moment’s notice, and we ask that you inform your school’s principal or psychologist if you believe any child you know is at risk.
Please be reminded that children will react to this news differently. It is not uncommon for a child to:
- Appear unaffected
- Cry to the point of being nearly inconsolable
- Ask questions about the death repeatedly
- Be angry or aggressive
- Be withdrawn or moody
- Be sad or depressed
- Become afraid
- Have difficulty sleeping or eating
We suggest that you encourage your children to express their feelings to you in whichever manner they are comfortable with, and let them know that you are there to listen whenever they want to talk, ask questions or just be close. These conversations can be difficult, so children are often hesitant to talk right away. When they do, answer their questions simply and honestly, and be prepared to answer the same questions repeatedly. Although difficult, these conversations more often than not will provide some comfort, even if it is not immediately apparent.
Should you feel your child is in need of additional assistance, a list of school and community resources are available on our PAUSD Health Services page and the Counseling Services page. If you need immediate assistance, the Santa Clara County Suicide and Crisis Hotline is available at 1-855-278-4204 at any time. If you feel you or someone you know needs immediate support, please call 911.
We will continue to keep you informed as we learn more information about this situation. All members of the PAUSD staff are prepared to assist the community’s young people and their families.
For our children,
Glenn “Max” McGee, Ph.D.