Days before graduation, Gunn students grieve

Sonya Raymakers, 17, remembered for her creativity

Editor's note: Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.

People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

For more resources, click here.


What should have been a day for Gunn High School seniors to sign yearbooks and recall happy memories from the past four years became a day for sharing of a different sort Wednesday -- exchanging memories of classmate Sonya Raymakers, who died Tuesday night when she was struck by a train at West Meadow Drive.

The areas of campus where seniors hang out were hushed Wednesday as peers held each other through tears and sobs, the reality of what happened settling upon them. Some students sat alone with tears streaming down their faces. Others cried silently in the arms of friends. A woman played a sad, slow song on the cello as students gathered on the quad during their morning break.

Raymakers, 17, was in her final week at Gunn High School and was scheduled to graduate on June 10. She had been accepted into the theater program at New York University for the fall.

"She was avid in the theater department," said Monica Datta, 17, a friend and classmate of Raymakers. "She was in stage tech. She was really good at hair and make-up and costumes."

Raymakers was involved in probably every show put on at Gunn since her freshman year, Datta said.

Raymakers said she wanted to become a professional theatrical costume designer, according to an article in "The Oracle," Gunn's newspaper. She excelled in sewing.

"She's one of the most artistic people I know," Datta said. "She designed her own prom dress."

Raymakers began designing clothing during her freshman year.

"It's fun to see what image you can create from a particular outfit, and when you're behind every stitch, you know it's all you," Raymakers said in "The Oracle" article.

She was well-known around campus for her creativity.

"She had unique style," said senior Erica Barnes, 18, who sat in the amphitheater quietly talking with three other friends. "She never tried to be anyone else."

"She was really helpful," said Nisha Balaraman, 17. "I know she helped a lot of people out."

Balaraman did not know Raymakers very well, but recalled her volunteering to speak to the Fashion Design Club about sewing.

Raymakers was also involved in Gunn High School's Gay Straight Alliance and the Youth & Government program at the YMCA. She had been a participant at the Y since middle school.

"She wrote some of the best bills we'd ever seen," Datta, also a Y&G member, said. "She was always helping everybody out with their different assignments for Y&G."

Datta said Raymakers was "an amazing writer and speaker, too."

Raymakers won first place in the Palo Alto Weekly's annual short-story contest when she was a sixth-grader at JLS Middle School.

Ahmad Fayad, 18, a fellow theater participant and Y&G member, sat with Datta on the edge of the amphitheater outside of Gunn's Little Theater as they reminisced about their friend.

"She can keep a straight face during laughing games," Fayad said with a faint smile as he remembered the moment. "Once I made her laugh, though!"

As Fayad and Datta talked about the talents and successes of Raymakers, a friend joined them. Fayad turned to put his arms around her.

"Everything she did was impressive," Fayad said.

He was in disbelief that he and his peers are dealing with the suicide of another schoolmate.

"Especially because we just dealt with this less than a month ago," Fayad said, referring to "JP" Blanchard, a 17-year-old Gunn student who died in an apparent suicide at the same train intersection as Raymakers on May 5.

Related stories

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Like this comment
Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Geez, this was another star student--so much going for her. Awful, awful, awful.

Like this comment
Posted by NotAMom
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:25 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:35 pm


Depression's a mental illness--fault is a bit strong, to put it mildly.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:38 pm

I am deeply sorry to hear the passing of this student. My condolences to family and friends.

However, I urge the Palo Alto Online and affiliated news agencies to review the CDC recommendations for media agencies reporting on suicides. "Suicide Contagion" is a well recognized phenomenon that is sometimes exacerbated by certain forms of suicide media coverage.

The following links provide useful guidance.

Web Link

Web Link

Again, my condolences to all.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:43 pm

I feel we need to think carefully about how we report and commemorate this tragedy to avoid suicide contagion seeWeb Link

For example it may not be a good idea to set up a memorial at the rail crossing, maybe the families place of worship, at Gunn or at a more neutral site.
The linked article also points out the potential role of some social networking site in cases of suicide clustersWeb Link

Like this comment
Posted by
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:46 pm

i can't believe it. losing 2 friends in one month, a person can only handle so much loss at once!
She was about to graduate high school! Going to NYU! She had so much going for her! Why now!?

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Posted by Mark, a resident of Stanford, 8 minutes ago

Thanks for those links,
They provide evidenced approaches to reporting and dealing with suicide and its aftermath


Like this comment
Posted by NotAMom
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Suicide isn't a rational thing, people don't kill themselves because they have nothing going for them, if it were rational like that they probably wouldn't do it.

Best to understand that depression isn't about sadness, it's about being in a vacuum or the 'bell jar'. Also, good to let people know that if they talk about suicidal feelings before it gets to the point where they jump in front of trains, they won't be carted off in a straight jacket.

If you are going to off yourself, you owe it to your family and friends to get some help.

Like this comment
Posted by sad sad parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Whatever your spiritual beliefs, let us all offer prayers and thoughts of deepest condolence and love to this young girl and her family and friends.

We are so sorry Sonya,JP and the countless others who felt so alone and in pain that they could only see one way out. Please, let's come together, differences aside and in unity, to try to figure out what is leading to these tragic and sad acts of desperation and what can be done to prevent any further tragedy.

Love and prayers to Sonya and her family. May no one else ever have to live with this pain.

Like this comment
Posted by A Palo Alto parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:58 pm

It looks like the Palo Alto Weekly, PA Online and this comment section may be adding to the potential for Suicide Contagion. Maybe we should all read the CDC's recommendations about preventing it.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Senior
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 3, 2009 at 3:06 pm

It's not the schools fault.

When something like this happens it gives people ideas or thoughts of suicide. JP's death last month was probably the catalyst and it's no coincidence on the locations.

That being said, this is of course a terrible tragedy. I would only consider her to have been an acquaintance but we used to share some classes and we always had fun conversations.


Like this comment
Posted by A Palo Alto parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 3, 2009 at 3:16 pm

I urge Palo Alto Weekly not to write a large first page report on this latest tragedy, and certainly not to interview the family or publish photos of the child. From the HHS page on preventing suicide contagion:

The risk for suicide contagion as a result of media reporting can be minimized by factual and concise media reports of suicide. Reports of suicide should not be repetitive, as prolonged exposure can increase the likelihood of suicide contagion. Suicide is the result of many complex factors; therefore media coverage should not report oversimplified explanations such as recent negative life events or acute stressors. Reports should not divulge detailed descriptions of the method used to avoid possible duplication. Reports should not glorify the victim and should not imply that suicide was effective in achieving a personal goal such as gaining media attention.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Alumna
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2009 at 3:18 pm

PAUSD has an obligation to address the emotional needs of students, especially those already identified as outside of the standardized general group. Students with IEPs and resource needs have greater than average difficulties performing at the level of expectation of our schools. The safety net needs to be thrown farther and wider. Sonya and JP's needs were not being met. The tragedy is the lack of prevention and support for kids the district has known for years.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 3, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Suicide has a genetic basis, probably a strong one, related to serotonin production. Web Link

If there is going to be a lot of discussion about what the schools are doing wrong, this may be the wrong avenue, and lead to false conclusions. If the problem is genetic, then it is best to deal with it on that level. Perhaps a specific drug can be developed.

The blame game needs to end. It is of no value, no matter how many times it is teed up, after each teen suicide. Do we blame the schools and parents and friends, when a teenager has a brain aneurysm and dies?

Like this comment
Posted by Graduated
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 3, 2009 at 3:53 pm

it's kinda sad that you guys are already analyzing this event like this, the fact that barely a day has gone by and you are munching theoretical numbers, a girl just died, leave it be, coverage should be limited, i agree, but a whole discussion which treats her one as many is a bit hurtful, no?

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 3, 2009 at 3:53 pm

I'm just so sad and sorry. Sad for her parents, sad for her friends and classmates, sad for the school. :(

Like this comment
Posted by AWorriedDad
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 3, 2009 at 4:06 pm

National average for suicide in 15-24 years old is 10 to 100,000 (with Califronia average lower at 7.5 ). Web Link
This should have reflect one tragic event every few years in our community. PAUSD should investigate why the rate in Palo Alto is that high.

Like this comment
Posted by a mom in Palo Alto
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 3, 2009 at 4:17 pm

I am very sad to hear about this tragedy. I interviewed her for one of the colleges she applied to, and she was so self-assured and excited to start her next adventure in life. I know she will be missed - she made such an impression on me in just 60 short minutes. My thoughts and prayers go out to her friends and family.

Like this comment
Posted by Dawna
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm

I hope this was not one of the kids that was on here after JP's passing. For example Depressed Person. I wonder too if it is a good or bad idea to cover these things in such a way or if it to leads to copycats. I see good points and bad. Not to play down someone dying at all but as a mom of 3 boys I really wonder if when they are at school and around town grieving if in the back of their little minds theres some sort of wanting to fit it or seeing how people react to such an event that they want people to react that way for them knowing that and how people will respond.
Please all the young people on here ... it may not seem like it but tomorrow is another day. Things that seem overwhelming today may not be so intense tomorrow. Get help ... talk to someone ... a friend a loved one etc. And to the friends and loved ones please if someone is hinting at it dont take it lightly stand up for your friend and tell someone ... get them help ... they may not be in a state of mind to be able to make a good judgement call to reach out for help. Hindsight is what is usally uttered following these tragedy's. Dont be afraid of hurting their feelings or making them mad. Most suicides do hint of it prior to the actual final act. Dont let another one of your friends become a statistic.
To Sonya's Mom .... as hard as it is right now remember one thing.
Women are like tea bags ... never know how strong we are till we are in hot water.
Bless you and your family

Like this comment
Posted by concerned adult
a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2009 at 4:40 pm

When I was a teenager struggling with intense feelings, I felt overwhelmed and almost killed myself -- but thankfully didn't, because now those hard times are just a distant memory and my life is better than I could have imagined. Nothing in high school is worth dying for. I know its so difficult for you Gunn students with two deaths in one month, but hang in there -- talk to friends and adults you trust, call Suicide Hotline, get into counseling for awhile, but don't take your life. Keep on plugging along and you will get through any pain you are in now. Honest. I'm an example of that.
Signed, Alive and Still Kickin

Like this comment
Posted by paly alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 3, 2009 at 4:55 pm

i am hoping that this, after two students committing suicide, will "wake up" parents in palo alto (and the school administrations) to let kids de-stress a little. the pressure is unimaginable that students deal with in high school (i know from personal experience). the students need to know that they dont HAVE to go to stanford/IVY league schools, or even go to college for that matter! it depends on the student, and what their personal ideas are on how to go about life after high school but in no way should ivy-league college be taught as a REQUIREMENT. i graduated with over ten other students who all went to stanford. yes there was pressure to go to a school such as stanford but no i did not go. it was my strength/being the "black sheep" that kept me from not giving into the palo alto school conformity.

imho, even middle schools and some elementary schools are amping up the pressure put on students to succeed (SAT prep courses for middle schoolers?!). at any rate, i hope that the tragic loss of both these students (JP&Sonya) will allow the palo alto community to take a second look at pressures within the education system.

i would have hoped by now that SOMEONE would have realized this was a problem - my 8th, 9th, and 10th grade years at jordan/paly included 1 suicide PER year by a fellow student. obviously it has not made enough of an impact... lets allow these two students to give palo alto a heads up/realize change IS in order, and ASAP might i add.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill Johnson
publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Jun 3, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Bill Johnson is a registered user.

A message from Palo Alto Online & the Palo Alto Weekly:

We are acutely aware of the concerns, expressed by some in the comments above, that media coverage of suicides can potentially lead to an increased risk of suicides by other vulnerable individuals. Mental health professionals suggest that the media and others be very careful about speculating about the reasons for a suicide and understand that suicides are a result of many complex factors and should not be over-simplified. The Center for Disease Control recommends that details of suicides be kept to a minimum and that the victim not be glorified in media coverage or in online forums.

At the same time, there is also general agreement that it is healthy for there to be opportunities for the sharing of feelings and to grieve as a community, and we hope Town Square can play a helpful role in providing one venue for that conversation.

Please respect the fact that the family of this young woman and her friends and teachers are in the early hours of coming to grips with what has happened and we can best respect them by not engaging in speculative discussion or expressions of anger regarding the possible causes or contributing factors.

While we believe this forum can provide a helpful outlet and source of support among community members, please use it thoughtfully and quietly, and consider the effects your words might have on those who may need help of their own during this sad time.

Our screening and editing of comments will be done with a goal of achieving this balance, and we are restricting new comments to registered users with a goal of discouraging insensitive comments made by completely anonymous individuals.

Like this comment
Posted by CaringMom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 4, 2009 at 10:05 am

CaringMom is a registered user.

Here is another place our young adults can go for help:

Web Link

In Santa Clara, the Bill Wilson Center has great programs and caring staff that can help in many situations. I'd also like to work to create a National Safe Place here in our community. If anyone else is interested in working on this with me, please leave a note and we can contact each other.

As a mom, I know my kids are going to love me and hate me over the years, and they are going to need people in their lives beyond their parents to listen and help them grow and deal with challenges. I'd like to know that they know where they can go for help with they don't think "mom and dad will understand" or are afraid to come to us. Any kids out there who are thinking right now that no one understands them and feel alone, please check out the website and know you can call them any time. So many people really do care and you are important amazing people with so much to offer.

To JP and Sonya's families - our hearts are with you, our tears and prayers go out to you and your family.

Like this comment
Posted by DW
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2009 at 8:19 pm

DW is a registered user.

Social psychology research has shown that suicide rates significantly go up in the weeks following front page articles about suicide (eg. PaloAlto Online & SF Chronicle)

Like this comment
Posted by GunnJunior
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 4, 2009 at 11:08 pm

GunnJunior is a registered user.

i think its so disrespectful for everyone to focus on the fact that this may have been a "copycat crime". it happened. it can not be undone. we shouldnt be sitting around wondering why she did it. we should be celebrating her life and grieving over the tragic loss of not one, but two great people.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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