Project Safety Net prepares for new direction

Coalition formed in response to teen suicides looks for new model, new leader, more youth voices

Hobbled by a leadership vacuum and insufficient resources, a Palo Alto coalition that formed in 2009 in response to a string of teenage suicides is preparing for a dramatic transition.

Project Safety Net, a loose collaborative that includes officials from the city, school district, local nonprofits and mental-health professionals, is preparing to transition to a more formal structure by switching to what is known as the "collective impact" model. Under this approach, the coalition would hire a new leader, establish clear goals and metrics and become less dependent on direct support from the city.

The change was prompted in large part by the organization's recent challenges, including its inability to retain a director. In the past two years, Project Safety Net had two different directors, each of whom left after a brief stint. City staff attributes the instability to the fact that the position was provisional and offered no benefits, yet it involved a heavy workload and required specialized expertise, according to a report from the Community Services Department.

In the absence of a leader or full-time staffing, the heavy lifting in coordinating the roughly 20 agencies that make up the coalition has fallen to two city staff members: Community Services Director Rob de Geus and Minka Van der Zwaag, who heads the city's Office of Human Services. And while the team has been holding regular meetings and discussing the best ways to fulfill its mission of supporting local youth, actual accomplishments have been difficult to tally and track.

Members of Project Safety Net also say the community perceives, wrongly, that the group is a "well-resourced organization that should 'do something.'" In reality, the staff report notes, Project Safety Net is a "collaborative of partners and individuals working toward common goals."

Faced with this existential dilemma, the group recently began to consider alternative models. In April and May, a subcommittee deliberated and settled on "collective impact," which according to the report is "premised on the belief that no single policy, government department, organization or program can tackle or solve the increasingly complex social problems we face as a society."

The approach calls for each participating organization to "abandon its own agenda in favor of a common agenda, shared measurement and alignment of effort."

"Unlike collaboration or partnership, Collective Impact initiatives have a centralized infrastructure – known as a backbone organization – with dedicated staff whose role is to help participating organizations shift from acting alone to acting in concern," the report states.

This "backbone support" would take the form of an independent staff charged with guiding the initiative's vision and strategy, advancing policy and mobilizing resources.

Unlike in the past, the director would have a background in administration rather than social services. The Project Safety Net subcommittee considered whether the position should be embedded in the city (as past directors were), the school district or another agency and concluded that the best way forward is for the director to be part of a separate organization.

After discussing the model in February and March meetings, the Project Safety Net leadership team unanimously supported it. It didn't hurt that two members of the leadership team, Leif Erickson of Youth Community Services and school board member Terry Godfrey both have experience with this model through their nonprofit work.

One of the subcommittee's central conclusions is that the current structure is "inadequate to sufficiently hold the collaborative together and make progress on its desired outcomes."

De Geus, who has been involved in the effort since it launched in 2009, stressed at Project Safety Net's April 23 meeting that the group cannot continue without "dedicated resources and leadership." The organization, he said, needs to invest in "a structure that has a leader and can move this forward."

"We definitely don't want to start over and start planning again," de Geus said. "Some would argue (there's been) maybe too much planning and not enough action. The collective-impact model helps put the pieces together in a way that we're going to be much more effective and be able to execute on the strategies that are defined here."

Van der Zwaag made a similar point in May, when she argued that the organization needs "someone whose job every day is to come in to do the work of PSN."

The idea of spinning off Project Safety Net into a separate entity also featured prominently in the city's budget discussion. At a May 26 meeting, the council's Finance Committee considered adding a recreation superintendent to the Community Services Department. Though community members ultimately approved the position, the ongoing uncertainty over Project Safety Net gave them plenty of pause.

Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who voted against the new position, said she was reluctant to spend more on staffing until the city has a better idea of how Project Safety Net will be administered and funded. Councilman Greg Scharff, who supported the position, told de Geus that it's "not his job to do Project Safety Net."

"I realize you had to step into the breach, but I think you have to transition that off," Scharff said.

With the proposed switch to the collective-impact approach, the city aims to do just that. The city would still provide resources for the effort, though its involvement in the group's operations wouldn't be as direct as it is today. On June 9, the council's Policy and Services Committee will consider the proposed next steps for Project Safety Net, which include the hiring of an interim director; the completion of a "collective impact roadmap for youth well-being and prevention of teen suicides"; the establishment of an executive board for Project Safety Net; creation of a team for data collection; and an elevation of the youth voice in the collaborative.

The city's budget for fiscal year 2016, which begins on July 1, includes $487,567 for Project Safety Net and related programs. This includes $315,000 for security along the Caltrain tracks and $118,458 for a program director. As City Hall's role in the collaborative diminishes under the new model, city officials hope other groups will seize the initiative to take on greater responsibility in supporting local teens.

"The city's unwavering leadership has occasionally resulted in other organizations disengaging," the Community Services Department report states. "The perception seems to be that the workload is being handled by the city and therefore further engagement is not essential."

Staff Writer Elena Kadvany contributed to this story.

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6 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 3, 2015 at 7:30 am

I have said before that two things would help our teens.

One is to get a dedicated PA Youth Activities website so that all teen activities in Palo Alto could list their activities on an up to date basis so that teens could look to see what fun activities are available to them on any given weekend. The teens need to be able to find some fun, safe, low challenging activities are available to them to give them a few hours break from the high stressed challenge of the school and extra curricula activities that they are engaged in.

The second is to get the faith communities that are already working with local youth involved in this outreach. They are already doing a great job in their small arena, and for them to share their ideas and efforts would help the community as a whole as well as probably helping their individual efforts.

4 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2015 at 10:47 am

@ Paly Parent,

There is a youth director/coordinator at Mitchell Park who might be able to help guide and support kids who wanted to set up such a website themselves. I can't remember his name, but I'm sure you could find it. That's a great idea. i'll be it could be linked to the Weekly website in some way through a community blog or even the entertainment section.

The faith community issue is a touchy one, because outreach gets dinged as proselytizing. Also, faith communities tend to be either really large or really small, for some reason. People have their preferences. But for the really small ones, it can be really hard to get the word out. My child and the other kids who have grown up in our church have felt like they had an extended family, but we are so small, a lot of what happens is up to the members, there is no set programs like in a large church. But that's part of what the kids here like about it, it's theirs. (When our child was small, we once skipped church to go to a birthday party, and when he realized as we drove by that he was going to miss church, he started crying!) The kids get to participate in ways they never could in a large church, including music. Anyway, it's not for everyone, and yet, the people who really want this kind of thing, the most recent members to join, searched for years. It's time consuming to find the right faith community - I wish there was a more central resource, as you have envisioned for the kids' events.

3 people like this
Posted by comment
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2015 at 11:21 am

One little problem in all of this. They're basically saying the leadership has suffered from a lack of passion, lack of sincere drive to really get things done. (It's not the social services background that was the problem.) You can't buy that. DeGeus shouldn't have had to shoulder all that if we'd had leadership more interested in advocacy and just more intrinsically motivated to help our kids.

Paying someone can help allow a passionate person to take on the role, but paying someone who has no drive for the goals of the project and may use it more to pad a resume won't magically make them more effective.

Couple that with the culture in the district office and PTA leadership that eschews passion and downright punishes and retaliates against the kinds of behaviors necessary for change in favor of goalong/getalong/"satisfiers" -- it's not a good recipe for doing whatever it takes to get the job done in a tough role.

2 people like this
Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2015 at 11:24 am

To combine forces with Paly Parent, on every survey I always make a plea for more teen centers, perhaps one in each general quadrant of the city--Barron Park, the existing one at MP, and two more on the north side of Palo Alto. Some of these could be coordinated with private businesses or could be staffed with parent volunteers. We could coordinate our school resources [gyms, basketball hoops, ping pong tables, etc.] for teens throughout the year. There has been talk of expanding the intramural sports at Gunn, which could be continued throughout the summer. These are just a few ideas to build more connection and get our kids away from too many virtual relationships. Having a "Today's Events" and "What's Happening This Week" for teens would be fantastic.

4 people like this
Posted by Check out!
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 3, 2015 at 12:08 pm

Since 2014 there has been a city-supported website created by teens called "ClickPA" - - that strives to become exactly what PALY Parent calls for - "a dedicated PA Youth Activities website so that all teen activities in Palo Alto could list their activities on an up to date basis so that teens could look to see what fun activities are available to them on any given weekend."

It needs more teens to know about it, possibly to intern and build it to its potential. Support it - volunteer - submit!

6 people like this
Posted by comment
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2015 at 12:29 pm

In terms of improving Project Safety Net...

The answer you seek, Grasshopper, is not in the spending of more money. Seek the people who left/were unhappy with Project Safety Net, the Safe and Welcoming Schools Committee, and the district over Special Ed/504, (or people who watch PAUSD meetings on TV looking for answers) and find the common thread. Note the same comments about bureaucrats who don't seem to care and make things overly bureaucratic without actually getting things done. Be open to hearing about retaliation and personal pettiness. Compare the leadership/names that come up, seek the common thread among the people, and you will find what you seek, if your heart is open...

Posted by Charles
a resident of Crescent Park

on Jun 3, 2015 at 1:13 pm

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2 people like this
Posted by Maryanne
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 3, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Regarding the comments about teen centers, I wanted to mention one new-ish resource.

Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley's LGBTQ Youth Space launched weekly and monthly activities and get-togethers for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning) at the Palo Alto office last fall. Activities are planned with youth feedback and are offered on a drop-in basis at no cost to youth.

The event calendar, which also shows the program's activities in San Jose and Gilroy is available at

4 people like this
Posted by Support New Structure
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2015 at 2:41 pm

I welcome the change to the new structure. Hopefully, this will spur ownership to the issues facing teens.

I hope that it also focuses in on providing resources in teen mental health. There is not a central focal point for parents to find immediate support when in the middle of a crisis. A primary care doctor refers you to a "mental health specialist" but this is just a list and a list does not provide real support or guidance.

There are many, many resources and activities for a healthy teen - too many maybe. But, there is not a place for teens suffering from anxiety, eating disorders, depression, other issues where they can go for support. These kids need a safe haven to where they can remove the veil of perfection and seek help.

Teens need a spectrum of support services from general place to chill to suicide intervention. Our community needs a place where it is welcoming to all kids and provides tangible value.

I see many opinions but unless you have lived with a teen in crisis then it is difficult to understand the pain and suffering and confusion and hard work that families face.

I welcome this change if the new structure can focus on teens and create a cohesive center.

2 people like this
Posted by Rebuild the net
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2015 at 8:21 pm

Support New Structure, I agree with you. Having worked as a volunteer on a number of suicide prevention fronts, I saw several areas that required more attention, but that were overlooked in all the territorial grappling and wringing of hands. First was mental health services and screening. Big shortage of help for teens when needed. Second, resources for families with teens in crisis. Each family has to struggle alone while many people who seem to be concerned are nowhere to be found. Third, intervention. There was nothing in place to go after young people who were in crisis unless their parents got on board and advocated for them. Some students are in crisis, yet their parents are unable to take this on. Very dangerous. Finally, when there is a person in crisis, and they go to the tracks, there is no communication available with the driver of any of the trains. This meant, a track guard had no direct way to get a train slowed or stopped, even if there was a crisis. Perhaps this has changed. Anyway, none of the above was being addressed at the few PSN meetings I attended. There was instead a lot of well meaning discussion that was perhaps helpful in some ways. But these four elephants in the room got no traction.

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Posted by Rebuild the net
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2015 at 8:27 pm

[Post removed.]

5 people like this
Posted by Brenda Carillo killed PSN
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2015 at 9:24 pm

[Portion removed.] The school district was a horrible partner, first refusing then trying to dominate, then killing all the initiative and effort. [Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by comment
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2015 at 10:45 pm

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Big picture
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2015 at 4:24 pm

The Palo Alto community and Project Safety Net, both, are filled with people of good hearts, minds and a strong commitment to help. The lives we've lost to suicide has affected everyone - personally and collectively.

Thank goodness PSN is recommitting to a sustained and more effective presence in our community by moving toward a formal "collective impact" model. This is needed and community members with good ideas and collaborative spirits are needed too.

PSN welcomes (and needs) anyone who has the passion and/or ideas to improve youth wellbeing and prevent suicide - together. Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Jun 4, 2015 at 9:45 pm

To Support New Structure: Well said. To everyone: Joe Simitian is putting his proposal for initiating a plan for county inpatient child/adolescent services before the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors at 9 am on Tuesday in downtown San Jose. Come and advocate for our children by asking the Board to rectify the shameful state of child/adolescent mental health care in our county by establishing a continuum of care such as the one described by Support New Structure. The Board has the authority to make this happen. We need to let them know that we support this authorization. Hope to see you there.

Like this comment
Posted by Big picture
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 5, 2015 at 11:50 am

Sarah 1000 has it exactly right. Ideas and fixes may be easy to brainstorm - but getting those ideas to be considered, approved and implemented requires showing up and advocating - to the right people, with the right power, at the right time (to make the case or show support) if major changes like policy and services for youth can ever be expected to improve.

This is the real work. And it takes place in between and outside of PSN meetings. It's in coming together that ideas are shared and spirit and energy catches for the work ahead. Sometimes happens online too! Thank you, Sarah, for sharing this important opportunity for every community member who's looking to help our most at-risk youth to support something very tangible. Thank you Joe S. for taking this important action.

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