Several tearful mothers spoke to their children's struggles.
In particularly dramatic comments, Janet Dickens, the mother of William Dickens, who died Oct. 19, said her son was described as happy and well-adjusted by his lifelong pediatrician. But she said he was vulnerable because he felt he could not compete in Gunn High School's "high-achieving, pressure-cooker atmosphere."
"Will did not have a diagnosed mental illness," Dickens said in her written comments, read to the board by friend and fellow Gunn parent Janet Levine.
"He was happy; he wanted to be liked and accepted. He was a star athlete, well-liked, from a strong, supportive and very involved religious family.
"He wanted to be accepted by his peers but was often seen in the background. He was vulnerable because he had a ... learning disability.
"He was vulnerable in a school where achievement and success were valued over and above creating a safe and caring environment."
Another parent spoke of her teen's debilitating struggle with severe depression. She said while some teachers were sympathetic others threatened to fail the girl because of her absences.
"In some ways I can't really blame them — adolescent depression isn't pretty," the mother said. But she recommended schools be more flexible and allow students to take an incomplete in a class if they dealing with depression.
Tuesday night's discussion highlighted the challenge schools face in effectively addressing social and emotional needs of teens while maintaining top-ranked academic programs.
While clearly sympathetic to the outpouring of grief and intensive community response to the suicides, school board members struggled to define a focused, feasible and measurable role for the school district.
"Social and emotional health spans the whole of human existence. There are no boundaries," school board member Dana Tom said.
"It's not like talking about learning about math, or learning about writing."
"We need to pick a couple of things and actually get them done so we can see some progress, because we're a school district and we have a lot of things we do," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
Several parents advocated a strong curriculum covering social and emotional health.
Emotional well-being is critical to other forms of success in life, Gunn parent Anat Admati said.
"We need a point person in every school to carry this forward. Don't let fear and being overwhelmed with this deter you from doing this, please," Admati said.
Kathleen Blanchard, mother of Jean Paul Blanchard, who died May 5, 2009, also endorsed a policy to address student social-emotional health.
"Key to success is identification of a person who will lead this effort and be accountable for making board resolution a reality," said Blanchard, who has two other children in the school district.
Most if not all of the school district's 17 campuses already have some form of social-emotional or character-education curriculum, including a mandatory "Living Skills" semester in the high schools, the "Steps to Respect" program in elementary schools and several anti-bullying efforts.
School officials this week proposed a new program, known as Project Cornerstone Developmental Assets, as a framework for youth support that could be used by schools as well as by the city and various community agencies.
That program already is in use by Los Gatos, Morgan Hill, the City of San Jose and various YMCAs, officials said.
"Developmental assets" themes include: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies and positive identity.
The idea would be for multiple community agencies to reinforce the themes, leading to an atmosphere of greater support for teens, district Director of Student Services Carol Zepecki told the board.
Zepecki, co-chaired a suicide response task force along with city recreation official Rob DeGeus, presented a long list of ways the school and community is responding to the suicides.
The school district plans to train all teachers and staff in a suicide-prevention method known as QPR (question, persuade and refer), school psychologist Wes Cedros said. QPR teaches people to "recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade and refer someone to help," according to its website.
With some reservations, school board members endorsed the Project Cornerstone Developmental Assets program but continued to discuss how to implement this and other emotional-health programs for students and staff.
Parents and school board members applauded the volunteer efforts of Track Watch, a group parents and others who have organized to maintain a physical presence at the Caltrain tracks in hopes of discouraging future suicide attempts.
"It's not a coincidence that we've not had a suicide since the Track Watch folks have been there doing their work," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.
"They deserve a lot of credit for that. It makes a big difference in a tangible way."
Skelly said he will work to refine some of the ideas presented Tuesday, particularly those concerning the Developmental Assets, and return to the board with more on the topic at its June 22 meeting.