Scores of Gunn High School students flooded the district's usually sparsely filled board room on Tuesday night to speak out in defense of their school in the wake of a classmate's death this weekend -- and to demand immediate, bold changes that reach beyond tackling academic stress.
One after another, the students stepped up to the speaker's podium in front of a standing-room only crowd to tell the board: This is not the school's fault.
"I know that many of you are looking for someone to blame because this is a senseless tragedy that nobody will ever be able to fully understand," Gunn sophomore Chloe Sorensen said. "But we all need to take a step back: Gunn High School is not the only thing in these kids' lives. They have issues with friends. They have issues with family. A lot of them struggle with depression, and even when they seek help, it isn't always enough.
"As a kid who walks through those halls every day and interacts with these kids face to face, I feel like I have the right to say that you are not seeing the whole picture. There is so much you cannot see from the outside: I have had teachers call me, email me, pull me aside, hug me, and cry with me. Gunn High School is a community, and it's a community that I am proud to be a part of." (Read Chloe Sorensen's comments in full here).
"Many accusations have been pointed against our administration and counselors, students and the environment as a whole," Gunn senior class president Mack Radin said, adding that he was speaking for his class. "It needs to stop."
Though they acknowledged the very present stressors in their lives at Gunn, students urged their parents, teachers, administrators and board members to stop pointing fingers at counseling services, AP courses, homework load, and the pressure to get into a top college.
"As a Titan and as a Palo Altan, I feel the urge to defend my administration, to defend the parents of my friends, to defend my friends from these criticisms," one junior said. "I feel that getting into college is one of the main causes that we've been discussing here today, and I feel that it's not a Gunn issue. This is a national issue."
Many students also emphasized that crucial to any sort of a response is understanding the difference between stress and depression.
Students repeatedly defended Gunn's rigorous academic culture and opposed some parents' proposals to limit the number of AP courses students can take.
"That's how I, at least, got to express my passion, by taking the classes I love," said senior Rose Weinmann, who serves as the school board's Gunn student representative. "I think students, they love their AP classes. They're the best classes we have."
"Stress at Gunn is not the problem," Radin said. "It is a problem and it's something to work on, but it's not the problem."
The parents of a Gunn senior who died by suicide on Jan. 24 released a statement Tuesday, writing, "Our son struggled with depression, and he made it clear that the cause was not due to academic pressure at Gunn."
Gunn sophomore Martha Cabot, who along with former Gunn English teacher Marc Vincenti has launched a grassroots campaign called Save the 2,008 that aims to create a happier, more balanced life for Gunn's 2,008 students and teachers, took to the podium to demand action.
"I want to feel comfortable at school. I want to be happy at school, and I want to enjoy what I am learning," she said. "Right now, I am doing none of those things."
She said that even if the most recent student death was unrelated to academic stress, easing students' lives at school and home by rightsizing homework and overall course loads two of Save the 2,008's six proposals -- would make a difference.
"It's time we change something," she said.
Students offered numerous ideas for programs and changes to implement, from a peer-mentoring program that links two Gunn students together for their entire time at the school to offering a "happiness" class that teaches students about dealing with stress and about general well-being and health, both physical and emotional. Others asked for student forums and more opportunities for parents and schools to hear the student voice.
One student suggested the creation of a smartphone app that connects students anonymously with someone a friend, a mental health professional, whomever to simply listen when they might be having a bad day and when it might seem like too much "hassle" to see a school counselor.
Senior Danny Golovinsky, president of student group Reach Out Care Know (ROCK), said he suggested in meetings with administrators following two student suicides toward the end of last year that they implement a "check-in system" with Adolescent Counseling Services to reduce the stigma around seeking mental health support.
"I propose that every single student at Gunn High School is required to speak with Adolescent Counseling Services once per year, in addition to checking in with the guidance department. I believe this will allow students to seek help without having to worry about what their peers think because everyone will be checking in with Adolescent Counseling Services," Golovinsky said.
Cole McFaul, Gunn's junior class president, said that he circulated a petition in December that asked for support for lowering stress at Gunn; he got 384 signatures "within days." Students also offered their ideas to get this done, the top two being implementing a block schedule at Gunn and offering the option to retake tests that they do poorly on. In a block schedule, classes are offered on alternating days, with each class meeting for a longer period of time.
Many parents also urged the board to switch Gunn over to a block schedule, which Paly did several years ago, to slow down the pace of their children's schoolwork and for the district's homework policy to be implemented at every school.
"I'm urging you to take care of the simple things you can do," Juana Briones Elementary School teacher Tom Culbertson told the board. "I urge you to be brave, do the simple things first and act quickly."
Most of the more than 30 speakers Tuesday night spoke during the open forum period, meaning the board members could not respond at length, though they did so in a later agenda item dedicated to a discussion of the district's student wellness and health services.
Board member Ken Dauber repeated a sentiment previously expressed by Vincenti of Save the 2,008: Gunn and Paly should not only have wellness centers, but they themselves should be centers of wellness.
"It's true that the connections between stress and depression and suicide and mental illness are complicated and vexing and, particularly, individual cases are difficult to discern. But the value of having schools that are healthy and where students thrive isn't just because they may or may not prevent suicides, it's also because that's good for kids," Dauber said. "We don't have to get too bound up with the question about whether any particular change is going to prevent more tragedies if those changes are going to produce a better life for kids at school."
Dauber also urged Superintendent Max McGee to look beyond the district's walls to draw more broadly on resources and best practices.
McGee laid out at the beginning of the meeting efforts the district is undertaking, including more education on the dangers of sleep deprivation, a "more formal approval process for students who want to take more challenging workloads," and making sure that a district-wide homework policy, whose impact and roll-out is reportedly uneven, is fully implemented at schools. He also said the district will explore bell scheduling and is in the midst of analyzing consistency in K-12 curriculum, assessment and homework practices.
"I know there is an urge to blame. I know there is an urge to jump to solutions. We all want to solve this problem now, but it will require multifaceted solutions," he said.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said that the board will best serve the students and community by "picking a few things and doing them high impact."
The district is also planning a community meeting in the next week or two an "invitation to the whole community students, parents, tax payers, city officials and of course educators as well to come together to work on identifying the problem and developing some solutions," McGee said.
The students usually a rare presence at board meetings said they wanted more opportunities to speak and to be heard.
"Above all, I respect this Board of Education," one student said, "but I must urge you to listen to the students, to talk to the students, to hear what they have to say."