The religious community will be hosting a panel discussion on Monday on how spiritual practices and teachings can strengthen the community's youth. It will be moderated by Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier and feature representatives from the Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Christian Science traditions.
The Palo Alto Council of PTAs, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and Adolescent Counseling Services will be presenting a panel discussion and resource fair on stress on Oct. 21. (See sidebar on page __ for details.)
"Clearly we have a case of suicide clusters here," a somber Kevin Skelly, Palo Alto Unified School District superintendent, said Monday. "Our balancing issue is to take care of the kids."
On Monday, a retired counselor at Terman Middle School, which Holmes had attended, met with Terman students. Counselors from two Palo Alto nonprofits, Adolescent Counseling Services and Kara, made themselves available to Gunn students this week as well, a school official said.
The latest suicide has rocked the community: In May and June, two other Gunn students died by suicide at the same West Meadow Drive train crossing.
The mother of one of those students pleaded with the Palo Alto school board Tuesday night to listen to students, not just adults, in responding to the recent deaths.
"There's a sense of urgency that I would like to stress," said Kathleen Blanchard, mother of 17-year-old Jean Paul "JP" Blanchard. "As I know in speaking with my son's friends, there are children who are hurting right now."
Blanchard, an attorney and mother of two other children in the school district, applauded the board for considering ways to improve the "social-emotional support for students" as one of its seven "focused goals" for the coming school year.
"I don't blame the school for my son's decision," she said. "I don't seek to place blame, but I want to find positive ways to help children who are in pain. It appears that most of the dialogue is taking place amongst adults and professionals, but there are important interactions that need to take place with students.
"We need to help our children feel safe about bringing up their concerns, and to help them feel valued and connected."
As part of the social-emotional health goal, school officials proposed asking teachers of the "Living Skills" class to meet and create a consistent curriculum that includes mental-health education. Currently the curriculum in Living Skills, a one-semester course required for graduation at both high schools, varies depending on the priorities of the instructor.
Skelly said this week that the district wants to be respectful of the community's loss but careful not to sensationalize the girl's death or prompt other students to take their lives, he said.
"Our challenge is supporting the kids in grieving but not over-dramatizing or making it seem like a normal behavior. ... We're at a dangerous point right now," he said.
He affirmed that the district will continue last spring's efforts to bring discussion of mental illness out into the open and educate parents and students about the root causes of suicide.
"Identifying who's at risk is difficult," Skelly said. Mental health issues are "very elusive" behaviors that "defy easy solution," he added.
In his 25 years in education, Skelly said he has come to understand Palo Alto's crisis as a community is not so unusual. Quoting from a book he had on his desk, Skelly said suicide clusters are more common than one generally knows. He rattled off a list of communities, schools and hospital settings where clusters have occurred around the nation.
"The more I read and the more I learn, I'm not terribly surprised," he said.
For their part, Caltrain and police officials announced they would ramp up enforcement near the tracks and team up with mental-health experts in an aggressive, community-wide suicide-prevention effort.
J. David Triolo, Caltrain's chief of protective services, said the agency will continue to monitor the tracks for trespassers and train its employees in spotting and counseling individuals who may be prone to suicide.
Caltrain has had 13 "crisis interventions" this year for individuals who may have otherwise attempted suicide, mostly based on someone seen acting in a strange manner near the tracks.
Caltrain is also looking for physical improvements around its right-of-way that could deter pedestrians. The agency plans to spend about $1 million on new fencing in the coming year, said Mark Simon, Caltrain executive officer for public affairs.
But the community's energies should be focused on addressing the reasons why people choose to go to the Caltrain right-of-way in the first place, Simon said. He said over the past decade an average of 299 people died by suicide annually in the three counties Caltrain serves, compared to an average of nine people who committed suicide on Caltrain's Peninsula right-of-way.
Simon said Caltrain will work with a group of mental-health experts, including those from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, to spread information about suicide prevention. The Palo Alto Police Department also plans to support the school community by placing officers at every school and by having a greater presence along the tracks, police said. And Liz Kniss, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said the board's Health and Hospital Committee will take up a proposed "Suicide Prevention Task Force" on which the council mental health staff has been working since June.
She said she is well-aware of the complexities and individual circumstances surrounding each death and of how the deaths each cause lifelong heartbreak in families.
But she said the intent of the task force will be to design a program that will be fully integrated into county mental-health services and that would complement local community efforts.
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