The Palo Alto school board's student representatives, one from each high school, usually spend several minutes at the beginning of board meetings updating the community on student-goings on at each campus: football games, Sadie's dances, Spirit Week activities and more.
This Tuesday, though, the day after a Paly student died by suicide, student representative Carolyn Walworth dedicated her several minutes to a passionate call to action, telling the board: "Right now is the time to act." (Read Walworth's speech in full here.)
"My ultimate point is this: Let's actually get to work, both as a community and as a school district," Walworth said. "There's no disagreement as to what major issues simply just exist on personal, family, social, school and overall community levels. Let's stop trying to figure out what exactly is such a huge factor in these tragedies, but rather let's focus on how to make improvements in all of the different areas that we've acknowledged in the past few months.
"A lot of, arguably too much, lip service is paid to sympathizing with students and the community about the troubles that we all experience daily in our schools and town. And that's fine, sympathy is great, but now is the time to actually act upon it. At this point, our community discussions over what is wrong do no good. We will not make any improvements in our district nor improve the quality of life for our students unless we begin implementing changes. Right now is the time to act."
Two concrete changes, Walworth suggested, could be a committee created to monitor the homework loads at Gunn and Paly and an effort talk to students about what they need from school counselors or therapists.
In recent months, other students have made similar suggestions aimed at making students' academic and social-emotional lives better, including requiring all high school students to check-in with Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), perhaps only once a year, to help reduce the stigma around seeking mental health services; creating a peer-mentoring program that would connect two students for their entire time at the school; having more teachers offer the option to re-take tests that students do poorly on; and at Gunn, switching to a so-called "block" schedule in which there are fewer periods per day, a change that the school is currently looking at and is expected to issue recommendations on in May.
The district and school administrations have taken actions to reduce student stress, including a homework-free February break; Superintendent Max McGee's requirement that all teachers follow the district's homework policy; encouraging more flexibility when it comes to rescheduling or retaking tests, offering extensions and completing late work without penalties; and requiring students at both Paly and Gunn to fill out a time management grid to map out their academic and outside-of-school schedules (including hours for extracurricular activities as well as sleep) when registering for classes.
On Tuesday night, Walworth's speech was followed by several other Paly students'.
"As a student at Palo Alto High School and a proud member of the Palo Alto family, I beg you all as teachers, parents and staff here in Palo Alto to work together, along with the students, to create an environment that each and every student can walk into feeling safe to explore and to learn," said Anmol Nagar, Paly's sophomore class vice president.
Senior Claire Liu, student body president, asked the community "to be wary, to be proactive and to keep an open mind when embarking on the very difficult journey that is trying to find an answer and solution to this problem."
She urged people to remember that Palo Alto is not the only school district with an academically rigorous culture and high expectations and hoped that any discussion of solutions will take on more than "furious critique of our difficult course loads and hefty homework calendars."
"Let us approach this obstacle without blame, without assumptions but with empathy, with research, with student voice and mental health experts," Liu added. "Instead of trying to dissolve stress at the high school level, let us strive to teach students resilience, recognition of individual boundaries and effective methods with which to address such obstacles. I know I speak for much of the Paly student body as well as the Gunn student body when I say that the kids in this community want to work with you, the board, educators and parents in making this city a more compassionate, healthy and safe place to grow up."
In the wake of the student death last week, the school district immediately increased its counseling support services. Paly also created an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) to which students can send referrals for service for friends or themselves or can simply write out their thoughts. Gunn implemented a similar, non-digital referral system with two boxes in the guidance department's office and another in the student activities center, where anyone can drop off an anonymous form referring a friend (or themselves) to see a counselor.
Another student, Sylvia Targ, urged the schools Tuesday night not to forget to support teachers and staff: "By taking care of themselves (they) will be able to better serve their students," she said.
Students news website Paly Voice reported that eight substitute teachers were made available on Monday and Tuesday to take over classes in case teachers needed a break. A school psychologist also attended the classes in which the student had been enrolled, according to the Paly Voice.
Numerous community events, forums and panels have been hosted in recent weeks and months to address student mental health and well-being. The City of Palo Alto is hosting a teen forum on Friday, March 27, at the Mitchell Park Community Center (3700 Middlefield Road) at 6 p.m.
The Oshman Family JCC is hosting a free parenting workshop, "How Depression Manifests in Children and Teens," on Thursday, March 26, 7 to 9 p.m. The event will feature Dr. Ayelet Hirshfeld, a licensed clinical psychologist in practice with children, adults, couples and families. For more information, go to paloaltojcc.org.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture the numerous voices, opinions and our news coverage on teen well-being. This page will continue to be updated. To view it, go to Storify.com.