Palo Alto's community-based "Project Safety Net" effort to create a safer environment for young persons received a significant commendation last week (May 10).
The 2-year-old Project Safety Net Community Task Force received a "Community Partnership Award" from Stanford University, an annual recognition of work Stanford people are doing in the community -- in this case health care professionals from Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital who have joined with others from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and private practitioners.
Other award recipients included two groups that provide a sharp contrast with the Safety Net project: the Peninsula Family Advocacy Program, a medical-legal partnership to improve access to health care for low-income families; and the Redwood Environmental Academy of Leadership, or REAL, which engages Sequoia High School District (Redwood High School) students in hands-on environmental work at Jasper Ridge and elsewhere.
A Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize was also was awarded to Janice Ross, who teaches drama and dance at Stanford, for a decade-old program in which she and a group of her students teach youthful jail inmates to dance, called "Dance in Prisons: The Arts, Juvenile Justice and Rehabilitation in America." She said the program is transformative for both the young inmates and for her Stanford students despite the contrasts in their lives.
The Safety Net task force is attempting to implement a "comprehensive, community-based mental health plan for overall youth well-being in Palo Alto."
That's a tall order, almost a mission impossible. But the effort could literally be a life-saver for some young persons who are struggling with the pressures of life, school and in some cases their own emotional crises. The task force was formed in the wake of a cluster of youth suicides, a huge wake-up call deeply affecting the community at all levels.
The group has developed a plan that includes 22 strategies -- with both long- and short-term actions -- in three broad areas: education, prevention and intervention. Details are at www.PSNPaloAlto.org.
The effort builds upon nearly 30 years of concern in Palo Alto about the well-being of youth -- the Palo Alto Weekly did a cover story in the mid-1980s on teen stress and efforts to address sometimes fatal crises of young persons. There was an effective anti-stress program at Palo Alto High School that dated back into the late 1970s, a relaxation-training program by a woman named Ann Gagnon.
But Project Safety Net is broader and more sustained than anything preceding.
Developing a cohesive plan was a huge undertaking by the diverse group. But implementing the various elements will be far more challenging -- particularly if the changes are intended to remain in place for more than one generation of young persons.
The complexity of the challenge can be assessed by reading through the responses to the Palo Alto Weekly story on parents Michele and Ken Dauber's criticism of the Palo Alto Unified School District actions to date. As of this morning (May 16) there were nearly 150 comments posted.
Many of the comments on Town Square (www.PaloAltoOnline.com) are insightful and on point, constructive even in disagreement. Some, as always in an open forum, are snarky, uninformed and just plain mean -- including some personal attacks. There is some give-and-take on how many young persons are depressed and thus vulnerable , with purported "facts" ranging from 3 percent to more than 30 percent, with citations of sources.
Given that 3 percent of the estimated 8,000 high-school-age students in Palo Alto would be about 240 young persons in deep emotional pain, isn't that a crisis?
Multiply that by 10 and it just increases the magnitude of the problem, not the depth of the pain or hopelessness of depression that make it what has been called a "fatal illness" for some. Converting hopelessness to hope is still an imperfect science, or art -- especially since a hopeless person often perceives statements about there being hope as a cruel joke or deception.
The Dauber's aggressively maintain that the school district is not doing enough. They have created an organization, "We Can Do Better," which will be holding an organizing meeting tonight, May 17, at 7 p.m. in Room A6 of Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road. So far it has just 20 members and an e-mail list of about 130.
It's hard to argue with "We Can Do Better." The bottom line is not whether the Daubers, who lost a child to suicide two years ago, are right or wrong in their harsh criticisms but whether the schools, the community, parents and fellow students are doing enough to be effective.
The real challenge is to create a community-wide environment that can be sustained year after year, long after the terrible months of the suicide cluster fade into history. Most such efforts simply fade away as time passes or new tragedies overshadow old concerns -- such as deaths from drunk driving or binge drinking or drugs or self-destructive high-risk behaviors.
As a journalist who has written about such "do something" efforts for more than a half century, I believe the biggest challenge is to create an effort that lasts, one that is more than a year or two endeavor -- one that becomes institutionalized in schools and in the culture of the community and its families, part of the fabric of our being.