Parents gather to talk, seek advice | November 14, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - November 14, 2014

Parents gather to talk, seek advice

Experts urge conversations that will help kids feel safe, able to open up

by Elena Kadvany

In the days after Palo Alto's most recent student suicide, local mental health experts, school administrators and parents who have lost children to suicide urged other parents to support their children by talking openly with them about suicide and mental health.

This story contains 1826 words.

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Staff Writer Elena Kadvany can be emailed at


Posted by Srinivasan
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 14, 2014 at 12:28 pm

With the recent tragedies and the unabating pressures to
excel in high school, it's time for our schools to innovate the
PE period to include psychological well-being of our students.

The approach to PE has been a dedicated period in school,
whereas the approach to psychological fitness has been the
"open door" policy. We know that taking the first step to seek
help is the most difficult decision for a person under stress.
Let us incorporate psychological counselling - "talk therapy" - as
an integral part of the learning experience, removing the stigma
associated with seeking help.

Let us reserve a 10-minute time slot in the PE period for every
student to meet with a professional psychologist at least
once a semester instead of running a mile. That regular "mental mile run"
would establish a mental association with a community
or school member, giving everyone a better sense of a support
structure within the community, and not just left with a help line phone number to call.

I urge the District to innovate the PE period now in our
schools to include psychological well-being as we prepare our
students for the challenges of the future while they still
enjoy the present.

Posted by Time for Change
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 14, 2014 at 1:05 pm

This article reports on what I find the most jarring fact about the PAUSD suicide epidemic: parents and 'experts' employed by the district are talking past each other.

Parents are interested in why our children are so stressed out, why they are working under conditions that no adult would willingly accept -- staggering workloads undertaken in subjects often of little interest to the pupil, complete loss of control over the hours, conditions and purpose of work, working a full day and then going home and working a second full-time shirt, no way to challenge the validity of the assignments, loss of power and control over the situation, and constant judgment and evaluation with little information about the basis for it.

Parents and students want less work and greater connection to purpose and meaning. They want to know why our children are running a rat race and want the school to impose limits on what teachers can assign, coordinate tests and projects, and evaluate whether AP classes should be limited to, as Gunn Junior Martha Cabot says, to 2 per year.

Parents already have to sign a permission that says taking more than this could be "damaging" to a student. Should they now have to sign something that says "ambulences are standing by"? When does the responsibility of the district kick in not to allow harmful choices regardless of whether some families have a taste for risk? What about the effects on bystanders who witness the negative effects of these choices? Yes smoking is a choice but there is secondary health risk from it. Just because some students want to indulge a taste for risk by smoking or drinking doesn't mean that the school has to let everyone else breathe the smoke or get in the car with the intoxicated student. Similarly, just because someone wants to take a risky course load doesn't mean everyone else has to be exposed to having their classmates collapse and be hospitalized (and those are the lucky students who got QPRed or stopped by the guards that our school district now has to post on the tracks.

Because that is normal.

When parents at this meeting finally got scared enough to say out loud what others mostly have only said privately -- other than Ken Dauber, who is brave beyond most of us -- what did our "experts" do?

Did they say "thank you for bringing up a valid concern"?

Did they validate the basis for concern -- sleep deprivation, anxiety, deprivation of opportunity to do pleasurable activities in favor of excessive work, feelings of loss of control?

No. They rambled on about the biological bases of mental illness -- as if there are no environmental factors at all in play -- and then talked about meds.

We need a community conversation about workloads, homework, AP classes, allowing kids to find activities they love rather than engaging in resume building. We need to stop creating "excellent sheep."

And we need new experts if the ones we have can't validate those feelings that every parent in Palo Alto now is starting to have and to speak openly about.

Does it mean that is the only reason for our crisis? No. Does it necessarily have any direct impact on suicide at all? No. Is it important?

Is it?

Posted by Gunn mom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 14, 2014 at 4:41 pm

I agree with the above comment. I attended the meeting at Gunn. The panelists, particularly the psychiatrist, seemed very interested in defending the school's current approach. I don't want to point fingers. I also don't want to avoid an honest discussion about what is going on in our schools, and what we can do about it. It is fine to talk about how we "all need to solve the problem" but we elected a school board and hired professional staff. It's up to them to change the schools.

Here are the paragraphs in the story that I am talking about:

"The speakers' advice was followed by a cacophony of parent pleas for the schools to minimize student stress and intense academic pressure. Parents called for reduced homework load and a limit on the number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes students can take. They urged the district to fully implement its little-known homework policy and school principals to instill a culture geared toward true learning rather than grades.

But what Palo Alto needs, the panelists urged, is an understanding that suicide and mental health are complex. Some questions may have no answers, they said. But creating an environment in which people ask those difficult questions will lead to the kind of community that is supportive and caring, where kids feel comfortable and even empowered to open up about their problems."

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 14, 2014 at 5:30 pm

This is so infuriating. Are our schools full of teens with mental illness?

No, I don't think so. Our schools are full of normal teens being pushed in ways their young lives haven't yet learned to deal with. Our schools are filled with adolescents, not college students. Our schools are filled with teens who need to be guided, nurtured, trained and educated in places where they can thrive and be happy as they do so.

Should we be trying identify signs of mental illness in 4,000 teenagers? Or should we be preventing any of them from suffering from it?

I suggest we should be preventing it in the first place.

Posted by Experienced Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 14, 2014 at 10:45 pm

Agree with the above posters that the schools need to change. College admissions are certainly not going to change and as we well know, a child from the Midwest with a 4.0 GPA is probably a lower level student than our 4.0 PAUSD student. In addition, APs at other schools are less rigorous than here. When there are 30 students in a class, half of which are capable of earning "A" grades, but the teacher only wants to allow a few "A"s, the teacher makes the class more difficult. There are many ways to make a class more difficult: assign more papers, projects, create more difficult tests, grade on participation, harsher grading. In Mountain View High School, the Spanish 2 class is allowed to speak English in class - versus our world language departments which ban English in their classes beginning in middle school.

Echoing "Paly Parent", our children are not mentally ill, they are just being pushed too hard by teachers, parents, and college admissions.

The only way my children made it through Paly was through paying tutors because it lessened the stress for them. And as I surmise, most Palo Altans are housepoor so not everyone can follow that route.

To those who think suicidals are mentally ill, let me enlighten with the news that depression can be a result of environment: no time for social life, too much homework on weekdays and all weekends, sleep deprivation - it's rat race for sure. My children experienced this even in regular lane classes which is the reason we turned to tutors - it was easier than allowing them to struggle. They did take 2 AP classes in each 11/12th grades because we weren't targeting elite universities. Each AP class adds at least an hour of extra studying. Some students take 3-5 APs per year - imagine that - five hours of homework is a distant memory.

Sleep deprivation can lead to tragedy. I'm guessing most of our high school student are sleeping 7 hours or less per night when sleep experts advise teens should sleep 9 hours per night. I knew two of the PAUSD students who stepped on the tracks and both were severely sleep deprived.

Posted by Barron Park resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 14, 2014 at 11:34 pm

I certainly agree with the above comments at the Gunn meeting. Two sets of conversations were occurring. The panel of mental health experts discussed generic issues, essentially saying parents were to watch their kids for signs of depression. While the parents kept asking questions of when the administration was going to change the academic burdens at Gunn.

Unfortunately, there is a large contingent of parents and administrators/teachers who are insisting on no easing up of the pressures.

The current situation shouldn't be a surprise. The wheels were set in motion years ago, when housing was expanding in south Palo Alto, and the PAUSD administration decided that Gunn would be the STEM high school for the city.

The debate about what kind of school Gunn should be will continue until Cubberley is opened as the 3rd high school. Cubberley will have a similar approach as Paly, and allowing Gunn to become even more extreme.

Posted by Would love to speak up
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 15, 2014 at 12:10 am

Is this FINALLY the conversation where I can bring up specifics and not be censored? Where I can talk about the things I know push my teen too far and that the district won't deal with or is even causing? We always need to finally talk about it, until we do, and then we are censored. Seems to happen every time. Unhelpful generalities and platitudes? Insulting to the suffering, but always ok. Speaking specifically about what's going on? Must result in shunning and censorship, because advocacy on behalf of children must not be allowed, it leads to (shudder) advocacy on behalf of children.

Dealt with depression today. So sick of being told to talk about it then being smacked down for doing it.

If we replaced a few more of the people at the top of the district with people who genuinely care, it could lead to things like improvement and solving problems. (Hint: Most everyone, no matter how egregious their actions, no matter whom they hurt, thinks they are a "good person" with others who think they are, too.)

Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 15, 2014 at 7:09 am

I agree with all comments. It's all right. But so what? We have few forums, from kids, from parents, all full of a constructive suggestions. But it is what it is.....internal parents conversations With an attempt to reach an administration after the unthinkable tragedy. We got a 'close a gap' committee created recently, but need to protect EVERY SINGLE KID in PA, all lanes, all levels. It's a public school after all.

There is so much done in our country, and PA recently, that was unimaginable a few years ago. it should give us a hope to unite and stand for our kids. Administration, kids, parents, we all want the same, healthy and successful kids. Let's create parents committee, prepare survey, involve students, analyze the results and come up with the organized petition, that can not be ignored. Until then, we will be just 'ventilating' our emotions.

Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Nov 15, 2014 at 8:07 am

@Would love to speak up-

Good Luck.

Posted by TooMuchPressure
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 15, 2014 at 2:24 pm

I want to see the schools publish the names of teachers that are not following the Homework policy.

It is no longer acceptable to hide behind a veil of anonymity.

Posted by Good News
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 15, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Skelly was a figurehead too afraid of upsetting teachers, not a leader. He was nice and approachable, but had no vision for improvement.

Max McGee gives me hope for change. He is an enthusiastic leader with a go-to attitude. Along with Dauber and Godfrey, who plan to address student stress, I see progress on the horizon. McGee and Dauber already plan to distribute teacher evaluations to teachers for teacher consistency - not rocket science, but no one has cared to help our children in the past. Wow, if they can force adherence to the homework policy (10 minutes per grade level), that would be amazing. We'd see smiles on our students faces again.

I think the majority of parents will not complain that their children are not working hard enough. If they do, they can surely move to private schools or another town. We do not need to satisfy the parents who want a rat race for our children. This is a public school and if their children are "too gifted" for us, they may proceed elsewhere.

Posted by transparency
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 15, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Good News,

That is indeed good news.

Whatever is adopted should be fully explained so that people understand how the schools will achieve improvements. It's not just teacher consistency, but having equitable rules.

Parents who know how to work the system have always ruled here, and not in the most elegant of ways. It will help if everyone has equal information and equal understanding of any improvements.

I still see a lot of gaming, like students being called in sick strategically by parents to take a test after the class has already taken it and gotten results back. The culture needs to change at many levels.

Posted by Barron Park resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 15, 2014 at 7:35 pm

I also see progress. The new principal at Gunn is doing things differently from past leaders, but I don't know how effective her proposals ultimately will be since the teachers appear aligned against her request for consistency and accountability. She also doesn't have the support of all the assistant principals there based on meetings I have had with some of them.

In addition, with 2 new voices on the school board, and a new superintendent, at least there appears a reasonable chance of some change occurring at Gunn.

But with the collusion of housing developers and realtors who are pumping up the international desirability of attending Palo Alto schools, there is a lot of money supporting the status quo. Including the older school administrators/teachers who like to brag about the national school rankings.

Posted by Would love to speak up
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm

"But creating an environment in which people ask those difficult questions will lead to the kind of community that is supportive and caring"

That is an enticing vision, but it can't happen unless parents are able and allowed to do what it takes to achieve it. Asking and exploring difficult questions requires honesty and communication, not always easy and palatable. That chapter in one of the Narnia books in which the lion claws off the thick dragon hide to bring back the boy inside, the necessity of his first enduring vulnerability and even unpleasantness to cast off his terrible state, comes to mind.

The parent lists were heavily censored by order of the PTAC, as it was explained to me, so that we don't cause a suicide cluster. (These were well-meaning volunteers only doing what they, too, were told.) But these are just parent-to-parent lists, no kids involved. I was censored for bringing up big picture systemic issues that our district and Project Safety Net failed to deal with when we last grappled with this issue. (That is merely a statement of fact in service of grappling with the issues and doing whatever it takes, not dismissing the hard work of PSN, i.e., PSN told me such issues were beyond their scope.)

My message in response to another parent asking for big picture thinking, that I tried to post to the parent list, contained such charged suggestions as advocating for reopening Cubberly for smaller school sizes and similar big-picture actions, improving indoor air quality (as already promised in the bond but not addressed), and having an intramural sports program.

I'm not sure whether it was the issues or the fact that my post was critical of district behavior that got me censored, but I was assured I was not alone, that the parent communication lists required a heavy clamp down, especially at Gunn, on the advice of mental health professionals.

Which is it, open honest communication is good, as the above article suggests, or dangerous, as I was told in justification of my being repeatedly censored?

It's well-known by those who study disasters and tragedies that community organizing and subsequent advocacy is one of the most powerful, beneficial consequences. That only happens when the real messiness of humans honestly grappling with how to do whatever it takes to solve a terrible problem is allowed to happen.

The will and impetus seems to be there in the community. But countering that each time, we seem to have many forces and people still in power in our district who put a great deal of effort into actively controlling everything, who want to be very sure they limit the conversation well short of any strong community organizing, advocacy, or critical soul-searching. We see the result of this in the main answer to the previous tragedies being a professionalized organization that the City has mostly maintained and has complained the district doesn't support or allow to do much in depth:
Web Link

In my observation, this controlling behaviour probably traces to how we insure ourselves, the kind of legal advice we get because of it, and the policies and practices that flow from that (such as stifling and controlling parent communications, not just now). The most negative consequence, in my opinion, is employees in important positions normally requiring a mindset of student advocacy — difficult enough when such advocacy is the sole focus — who are put in an untenable position of acting almost like expert witnesses and adjusters for the insurance company, an impossible conflict of interest in a school district. It has made some otherwise good people unable to perceive and interact with parents in good faith, and to do repeated, terrible things to a lot of vulnerable families on the belief that they are only doing their job. That in turn demolishes trust between the community and the very same staff who are otherwise most needed in times of stress.

Look at our school this week. Instead of community soul-searching, which was actively impeded, we were sent mass official emails to explain why the excess homework we have been complaining about since school began was our students' fault ("a larger percentage of students are having difficulty using class time wisely"), and containing lists of patronizing instructions to parents like, "Make school work a priority," and "Communicate with a parent or teacher when help is needed." We have received almost no communication whatsoever in follow up to a meeting over our own excessive homework concerns that preceded the most recent tragedies, and the incredibly stressful impact it has had on our whole family. Really, almost no communication at all, despite our pointing out that the homework let up for about a day then went back to worse right after the meeting.

Rather than honest conversations and problem-solving about reasons kids may have more trouble concentrating in class — something we were already trying to address — rather than some indication, even temporarily, that our concerns had been understood and taken seriously, we get what comes across like some kind of legal CYA. I'm not saying this was the intent of the senders who generated the email — the teachers really are very good, caring teachers — but in context, and given specific behavior and direction from above, it definitely comes across that way, i.e., in this and virtually every other interaction we have had, the controlling of the conversation by the district office has the effect of undermining trust and resulting in the messy work that needs to be done to really solve the problems being glossed over once again.

In spite of all this lip service about teaching our children to learn from mistakes, all the way up to the school board, there is a culture of covering mistakes, shutting down open discussion and avoiding honest problem solving. I found this very, very stressful week that I was neither able to discuss (much less address) the big picture things, nor personal pain, we were just shut out, told that stopping all communication and honesty from us was for the greater good.

Still I am avoiding saying what I think really needs to be said, but I'm sure this is too much already. Maybe people disagree with me, maybe they agree, but the sad thing is that I fully expect just to be censored. Move along, there's nothing to see here, folks. We can't be honest if it involves anything stronger than useless platitudes.

And if past experience is any guide, I face retaliation and shunning for saying such things by the people who recognize me from even this much honesty, yet again.

Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 16, 2014 at 4:00 pm

A shame some continue to think that because Gunn exhibits a suicide cluster that somehow Gunn causes the suicide cluster or that Gunn can do a lot to change it. The principal, superintendent, and school Board members may change, but the suicide cluster has a decent chance of sticking, so long as the tracks are there and teenage mental illness is with us.

There are things not to like about Palo Alto schools - there are certainly things I don't like about them, particularly the incredible obsession with status colleges - but the idea that somehow they uniquely contribute to suicide is wrong-headed.

Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Nov 16, 2014 at 6:12 pm

@Would love to speak up -

Thank you!

You wrote:
In spite of all this lip service about teaching our children to learn from mistakes, all the way up to the school board, there is a culture of covering mistakes, shutting down open discussion and avoiding honest problem solving.

I second. Problems cannot be solved when mistakes are not identified. Mistakes cannot be identified when there is no open discussion. Open discussion cannot take place in an environment ruled by retaliation and censoring.

This whole cycle was the reason that had me repeat over and over the need for independent investigation.

Unfortunately, the culture you described is not limited to PAUSD. This board presented censoring that made uncomfortable discussion disappear.
And so it continues.

Posted by Concerned
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm


There is no way (that I know) of proving that something at Gunn is causing the suicide cluster. The causes of suicide are multifactorial, however it is of interest that the majority of student suicides that have taken place over the past several years have been Gunn Students. In my opinion it would be meaningful to consider the differences between the two high schools in order to assess if there is anything within the Gunn school culture that may be a contributing factor to this contagion. I do not say this to blame anyone at Gunn, I simply find it odd that Gunn has been struck so hard by this and Paly, which is located much closer to the tracks, has not.

Again, I am not blaming Gunn, but I do think the district should take a very hard and long look at the differences between the high schools. Perhaps bringing in an outside consultant to do a culture review of both schools would be helpful. I think having an impartial consultant do something like this could be very worthwhile.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 16, 2014 at 8:03 pm

Once again, PALY is overlooked: there were several suicides there, what, about 12 yrs ago. Focusing on Gunn is incorrect.

Posted by Would love to speak up
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2014 at 12:00 am

Your comment is unhelpful at best. Kids spend most of their day at school. Since there are so many things we KNOW affect mood and even result in depression, and that relate to the time kids spend in school as well as things the school has control over - some of them already of concern, like too much homework leading to lack of sleep -- it would be negligent to just assume nothing can be done.

If anything, there is a whole realm of issues that impact student wellbeing that went unexamined the last time, things eminently within our ability to improve for myriad reasons. As I said, I hope people will feel they can finally speak to them.

Posted by Ex Palo Altian
a resident of another community
on Nov 17, 2014 at 12:37 am

To the concerned parents of Palo Alto: You could always do what we did -- move to a different town. Some people move to Palo Alto for the public schools; we moved away because of them.

There are many things we miss about Palo Alto, but worrying that the pressure at school might kill our children? Wow. Don't miss that. It's hard to understand why anyone willingly puts their child at risk in that way. Just, call the realtor -- and get out.

Posted by Would love to speak up
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2014 at 5:39 pm

@ Ex,
Sorry you left, I can understand why. I'm very hopeful about our new administrator, though, and Ken Dauber on the school board.

The hardest thing will just be getting rid of a couple of C-players in the district office (the essence of why the term petty vindictive bureaucrats was coined) who should have exited with Skelly. Thing could change overnight if we are allowed to do better by working with the district office to improve things rather than having to endure the kind of stuff you moved away to avoid.

My best to you. Wish us luck.

Posted by Charles Young must go
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2014 at 10:26 pm

I do hope Max McGee is not treating Charles Young as a credible resource in dealing with this latest suicide. On the one hand, McGee has minimized Young's duties and oversight, for example Young no longer supervises Kevin Skelly crony Holly Wade, while on the other hand, Young is enjoying the first of another three years of a cushy contract. Wade needs to go, too. She has refused to take responsibility for OCR complaints that began as special ed issues. Most worrisome in the last two weeks is McGee's Skelly-like under the radar reaction to the latest suicide. I don't think he really knows what to do.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2014 at 11:22 pm

@Would love to speak up

You weren't the only writer censored on the parent networks. It seemed very strange that the parents only network is essentially shutdown after the suicide exactly when the parents want to discuss the most. If parents want honest and open communication they will need to setup forums outside of the reach of the PTAC.

Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2014 at 11:36 pm

@Would love to speak up -

You wrote "...Thing could change overnight..." I doubt such quick change is possible. Cover up was mentioned many times before.

from the horse's mouth:
"The fact of the Watergate cover-up is not nearly as interesting as the step into making the cover-up. And when you understand the step, you understand that Richard Nixon lied. That he was a criminal." Bob Woodward

Wishing you again - Good Luck!

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