Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 4, 2010

Editorial: Can Palo Alto build a 'culture of caring'?

An unprecedented level of collaboration has produced a sweeping plan to build a safer community for young persons — but action by the schools will be key

A remarkable process has been underway in Palo Alto in recent months: The community has focused on creating a more caring and responsive environment for children and young persons.

Under the broad umbrella of "Project Safety Net," about 50 different community-based organizations have been wrestling with an immense challenge: changing a community culture that many feel has been far too test-oriented into one that listens better to young persons and responds effectively to those hurting.

The "Safety Net" has already produced some improvements in how young persons in trouble can connect with sources that can help them get through depression or anxiety and the hopeless, helpless feelings that contribute to terrible decisions.

The trauma of the past year, in which several young persons chose to take their own lives, has deeply affected the Palo Alto community, and beyond. It has caused many to take a deep look at ourselves and our culture.

"Words cannot convey the efforts and emotions of the past year regarding social-emotional-physical support for the community," Carol Zepecki, the district's director of alternative programs, wrote in a summary report presented to the Board of Education May 25. "One can talk about fear, sadness, disbelief, pain, anger, problem solving, frustration and the myriad other thoughts and feelings that were shared and experienced by so many members of the community this past year.

"These words really do not tell the story. There is no way to convey the sense of deep loss and the outpouring of support as Palo Alto experienced the deaths of our students," she summed up. Zepecki co-chairs the Project Safety Net committee with Rob DeGeus of the city Recreation Department.

Several of those whose lives have been changed spoke May 25, one citing a "pressure-cooker environment" in schools and another describing how her son faced special challenges due to a learning disability that contributed to his fatal choice. (A detailed report of the May 25 discussion is at http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=16979, and a video of the meeting is on the school district's website, www.PAUSD.org.)

Three priorities emerged as the Safety Net group began meeting last fall: educating students on mental health and identifying mental illness, identifying students with issues and connecting them and their families to community resources, and "removing the stigma associated with mental illness and depression through educating students, parents, and staff."

A primary recommended response is for the district and community to utilize a set of 41 "developmental assets" for young persons, developed some years ago and referred to as "Project Cornerstone." In addition, sharing of information between health care providers and educators will be improved through new forms, designed to respect privacy but (with parental consent) helping coordinate the response to students needing assistance.

Yet the real challenge is still ahead. How can the community, and the schools in particular, sustain the efforts and continue them as this terrible year fades into history?

Unless such programs are deeply ingrained in organizations they don't last. They need renewal and care and sustained effort and energy, and in spite of some apprehension the district must take a leadership role to implement new curricula and policies.

School board members, clearly impressed by the Safety Net collaboration, appropriately asked for recommendations from Superintendent Kevin Skelly as to specific steps that should be taken. Skelly said the staff will return on June 22 with additional recommendations, and in August when the board reconvenes following a summer break. But he also cautioned about staff "bandwidth" and being "maxed out."

School administrators have typically pushed back when challenged to address social and emotional needs of children in the schools through formalized curricula and other programs. They have historically viewed these needs as the responsibility of parents, not the schools.

We couldn't disagree more strongly, and the time has come for a change in this attitude. School board members must insist that a concrete plan be developed that addresses, in the schools, the priorities developed by the Safety Net group.

Some great work has been done by a motivated group of community and school leaders. Now it is critical that the school board fulfill its responsibility to spend the time and financial resources to implement real and effective change.

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