Students urge more transparency after suicides; school district says it is respecting families' wishes | April 29, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 29, 2022

Students urge more transparency after suicides; school district says it is respecting families' wishes

Three Gunn students sent the Palo Alto Unified school board a public letter pushing the district to change its response to suicides

by Zoe Morgan

A group of students is urging the Palo Alto Unified School District to change the way it responds to suicides so that there is more transparency with the community after a death occurs.

Three students affiliated with the Palo Alto-based nonprofit Youth Community Service sent a public letter to the school board last month arguing that when the district doesn't release information about a suicide, rumors can flourish and students are left feeling unsupported.

The district, for its part, told the Weekly that the amount it shares is largely dictated by the wishes of the deceased's family, who in some cases want little to be said publicly.

The students' concerns were prompted in part by the suicide last October of a 2017 Gunn High School graduate. According to students, many heard about the death through the grapevine or from news reports, rather than through any official communication from the school district.

"Seeing these suicides happen quietly among us, without clear details being announced after, creates a sense of helplessness and grief. We feel stuck, (with) these suicides and insufficiency of details feeling almost inevitable," Gunn students Abby Kuang, Anika Saraf and Juan Acosta Perez wrote in their letter.

The students wrote that while information such as the method of death or specific location should be omitted to avoid suicide contagion, broader information ought to be publicized.

The district's Mental Health and Wellness Specialist Genavae Pierre Dixon said she understands it is frustrating to have a loss occur in the community and not feel like you know what's going on.

When a student dies by suicide, the district reaches out to the family first to get permission to share information, Pierre Dixon said. In most cases, she said the family will allow for some level of public messaging, though that's not always the case.

"We never want to go against what the family would like us to be doing," Pierre Dixon said.

When it comes to the suicides of alumni, families tend to be more private because their child was no longer actively engaged in the school setting, she said. That was the case in October.

"Around that particular loss, the family was very clear about what they wanted to occur and what they did not want to happen, and so we followed the family's lead," Pierre Dixon said.

Saraf said in an email that while she agrees that the district should respect a family's wish not to have specific information released, she feels like the district is using this particular instance to excuse an overall lack of support and said the district's overall work on mental health has fallen short.

"I believe the district could've and should've taken other steps to address mental health and students' need for support without explicitly bringing up details about the specific suicide," Saraf said. "For example, a community-wide message reminding everyone of mental health resources and meaningful discussions about mental health at school would've been more beneficial to students than doing nothing at all."

When a family doesn't want information shared about a suicide, Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Student Affairs Yolanda Conaway also said, one potential step the district could take is sending out a message to students reminding them about counselors and other available resources, even if they don't mention the death itself.

Kuang, Saraf and Acosta Perez stress that not sharing information with the community is problematic and leads to further stigma around mental health issues.

"It seems counterintuitive, but the more we cover up mental health, the more we cover up these topics, the less people feel comfortable to share about what they're dealing with and reach out to get help," Saraf said in a February interview.

District administrators say that they understand the concerns students have and believe transparency is best, but as school leaders they have to balance their own wishes with those of the community and those of the deceased's family.

"Sometimes we have to juggle that, in a way, and sometimes there's no quick, easy answer," Conaway said. "We struggle with it as well."

Moving into next school year, the district plans to provide more proactive information to students and parents about what the procedures are in the event of a suicide. Administrators also said they want to meet with students to hear their thoughts and concerns.

"We have to do a better job of making sure that we understand what their asks are and what their needs are," Conaway said. "I think that conversation needs to be ongoing, not a one-shot deal."

In their letter and comments at a March school board meeting, Kuang, Saraf and Acosta Perez also raised broader concerns about the mental health support that is available for students in Palo Alto Unified.

According to Kuang, mental health is often addressed at school in a way that makes it feel like it's an item to be checked off a list.

"As an actual student living through current-day high school, my voice feels unheard and washed out by the adults who think following a textbook guide on mental health is accurate," Kuang said.

Saraf told the board that students have reported difficulty scheduling time to see a mental health staff member at school and that the appointments themselves can feel rushed.

After facing staffing shortages this year, the district announced last month that it plans to begin moving towards an in-house model of mental health care, where staff are hired directly, rather than through contracts with outside agencies.

Conaway also told the Weekly that she appreciates students coming forward and making their voices heard.

"I applaud the students for their honesty and (being) forthcoming with some of their concerns — and hope they will continue to do that," Conaway said. "We have no issues being challenged on the process."

Email Staff Writer Zoe Morgan at [email protected]


Posted by Samuel L
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 29, 2022 at 9:15 am

Samuel L is a registered user.

Since when did PAUSD start caring about parent wishes and student concerns? The lack of information is because it is negative press for the district. The strategy of the district is pretty well established.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2022 at 10:31 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Having been a parent when a suicide occurred on many occasions, it is true that rumors with either true or false information circulate around the student body and as a parent we get to hear it third or fourth hand and have no idea which is true and which is not. This also happens when there is a death in the school community due to cancer or some type of road accident, etc. As parents, we often have to deal with grieving teens and it is always hard to know what they are grieving about because their first reaction is not to tell us.

Teens are difficult to assess. When they close up it might be because of grief, or it might be because of something such as drugs/alcohol/or being dumped by a romantic partner. As parents we have to deal with "moody teens" without any clues as to why they are behaving the way they are behaving.

I agree that more transparency to families in schools makes much more sense than keeping quiet. We don't have to know all the details, just enough to make sense of what our teens are feeling. Then we can hug them and support them. Otherwise they just tell us to go away and leave them alone leaving us wondering.

Posted by Catherine
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 29, 2022 at 11:44 am

Catherine is a registered user.

As a PAUSD parent, I do not wish to get too much information on a specific suicide case. Especially for someone I don't even know. I remember when a high school suicide happened few years ago, we received emails from our middle school principal, superintendent, district counselor. It was so stressful to read all those emails. It added so much unnecessary stress to me and my family. Please combine all the information to ONE email! We already read the story from the news. That's enough!!! Please also respect families who do not wish to get too much information on a specific suicide case. Thank you.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2022 at 1:04 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

No one is entitled to this kind of private family information. It is the family's right to decide what they want to share or feel able to share. It is not the district's place to decide what private information will be released.

A dear friend lost her father to suicide when I was a young adult. She found his body. Her pain enormous, and it took many years before she could fully share her feelings...even with very close friends. I made sure she knew I was available to listen. I waited until she was ready. No one is entitled know the private pain of others.

When someone dies, we support the people they leave behind with love. We do not ask the mourners to relive the details of the death. We support them by letting them know that we share their grief. We support them by listening when they are ready to talk. We do not push. We make sure the family is taking care of themselves. We do this by bringing flowers and meals or whatever they may need. We do not ask invasive questions that make a terrible wound fester.

This is LOVE. Accepting another's grief and giving them what THEY need in a time time of crisis and loss.

We do NOT ask probing questions to feed our need for information. We do NOT gossip. When others gossip, we do not participate.

Support each other. Love each other. Support the families who have lost a loved one. This will also help you heal if you share their loss.

If you need information on suicide and how to cope with it because you have lost a friend, please ask for help for support in your grief. If there isn't someone close you can turn to, reach out to a professional.

There is good information about how to cope with suicide available. You do not need to know the details of these terrible losses in order to sort through your personal loss.

I think the district is doing the right thing respecting the family's requests. This is not the district's story to tell.

Love listens. Love is strong. Love lifts us up.

Posted by Juan A
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 29, 2022 at 5:38 pm

Juan A is a registered user.

Our intention by no means was to pressure parents to disclose information that is not wished to be shared. As we wrote in our letter linked at the bottom it is important to respect the parent's wishes. Our intention with this letter goes beyond this specific case and tries to start the uncomfable conversation about mental health. It is important to understand the pressure and toxic environments students from PAUSD face every day. Moreover, as a community member, I urge whoever is in charge of the suicide postvention plans to take a step toward transparency. This is so we aren't left to assume that the only reason why certain news were ignored was because of fear of bad publicity.

Web Link

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Apr 29, 2022 at 9:16 pm

Meadow is a registered user.

Mental Health providers and schools cannot give out information about individual student's health, nor should they. This means the public cannot know if the school district's answers are true, or if they cherry picked one case to make it appear their answer applies to all cases. Ms. Conaway is not a mental health specialist. She leads mental health services, creating the risk she needs to make her services look successful.

The students raise a valid concern they believe the quality of mental health services are poor, difficult to obtain and rushed. This comes after years of district reports these services were re-organzied and expanded. Since this was done for the benefits of students, their voices need to be taken seriously.

The students raised a concern at the same time the Board of Education abruptly halted broadcast of meetings over Zoom, making them inaccessible. We can have sympathy for the families for their loss and consider the current student's desire for improvement. They are working for transparency when possible and to ensure adequate mental health services are available to reduce the chance of a tragedy happening in the future.

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Apr 29, 2022 at 10:57 pm

Anony Mouse is a registered user.

Look closely at the administration officials quoted. The superintendent is nowhere to be found on this - mind you, this is a person who loves to give a boastful quote. The narrative that "we are always winning" must always emanate from this boss. This story is clearly too icky for him. Sad. Listen to students! They are everything. They know more than we give them credit for.

Posted by MA midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 30, 2022 at 7:41 am

MA midtown is a registered user.

The students’ request for more support in no way contradicts the need the protect the family’s privacy. Please listen to the youths’ requests. Let’s not shut them down but find ways to protect and support them. Thank you to the three students for speaking up and showing up at the school board meeting.

Posted by Sally Bemus
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 30, 2022 at 2:06 pm

Sally Bemus is a registered user.

Thank you to Abby, Annika, and Juan for your courage to speak up on behalf of your fellow students. And thank you to Yolanda Conaway for listening to them and agreeing that improvements can and should be made and for your willingness to include our youth in these efforts. Click on the link that follows to read the joint letter from the City of Palo Alto and Project Safety Net sent to the community last October that timely addressed the loss in our community while respecting the privacy of the family. It might serve as a model in the future for district communication with students, staff, and parents. Web Link

Posted by Palo Alto Res
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2022 at 2:27 pm

Palo Alto Res is a registered user.

Max Mcgree used to be very upfront and clear when suicides happened. Now Don Austin hides things. He just doesn't want parent community aware. He is passing a message that depression is something shameful and needs to be hidden.

Posted by Palo Alto Res
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2022 at 2:30 pm

Palo Alto Res is a registered user.

The students are not asking PAUSD give names and details of the suicide. Max McGee used to inform the community a suicide has happened. A simple notice of suicide by a PAUSD student, and where students can get support for depression and mental health. Don Austin doesn't put his name to any emails or notices where he can't say he is a leader and doing a fantastic job. He only signs emails where he has good news. Take a good look. Bad news emails are left unsigned by the Superintendent and it comes not from his email but administrative staff. Only good news emails come directly from the "Superintendent" and he puts his name at the end.

Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on May 1, 2022 at 8:14 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

There will never be transparency when it comes to suicide. Whether it's the school district, the media, etc. Respect the wishes of the family as well as their privacy.

Posted by maryakatiff
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 3, 2022 at 10:51 am

maryakatiff is a registered user.

This is a valid concern raised by current students. It's just such a complicated issue. A family who loses a child--to suicide, illness, or accident--is going through immense waves of grief, and they also might feel protective of their child's story, whether it is their child's depression, mental illness, drug addiction, or physical illness (among others). It just simply takes time for families to grieve and then to decide on the narrative they release to the public. This is not a simple act of "truth telling," as if a family can release the truth and then be free. Sometimes, they are awaiting toxicology reports, which can take up to two months. Other times, they just need time to process and grieve before any information can be released. There are certainly families who lose children and are immediately open about it. But there is no one way to grieve, and total privacy is a choice among many. It's very sad for students when they hear rumors of a death. It's true that district cannot release specific information without the family's consent, but they can certainly increase their mental health resources and attention paid to mental health.

Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 3, 2022 at 6:44 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Thank heavens Gunn High still has plenty of students who are observant, caring, and eloquent.

For example,student Abby Kuang observes here that mental health, in the curriculum,feels like an item to be checked off a list. As an actual student living through current-day high school,” Kuang notes, “my voice feels unheard and washed out by the adults who think following a textbook guide on mental health is accurate."

”Will those adults ever hear?  Ever change their thinking? 

The signs are not good.

Ever since our suicides began, and in my role as head of “Save the 2,008,” I saw with sadness that a substantial number of adults were quite frightened by the topic of suicide—did not even want to hear the word spoken or see it printed. 

In my conversations with them they jumped to other topics, were too paralyzed to listen, and sought one-dimensional explanations from which they might quickly move on.  In this town it has been practically impossible to find an adult who could listen to a teenager for fifteen minutes without interrupting.

Gunn itself,understandably awash in fatigue and grief, has never taken a hard but compassionate look at its practices—like most U.S. high schools it could be called a “helicopter school” or likened to a sweatshop.  And it has been left to suffer under anemic epidemiological studies (the CDC’s; Stanford’s “psychological autopsies”) and a series of blinkered principals, school boards, and superintendents.

Yes, Ms. Kuang,the “curriculum item,” “checklist” approach will not do.  Not until we are courageous enough to see the school as a whole as an unhealthy place—with overcrowded classes, un-moderated homework, wave after wave of grading periods, frantic over-subscription to A.P.s, a cellphone culture, and runaway cheating—will the likes of Ms. Kuang feel heard, seen, loved. 

(Note: I taught English at Gunn from 1995 to 2010.) 
[email protected] 

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Downtown North
on May 10, 2022 at 10:37 pm

Meadow is a registered user.

Having a child who survived suicide attempts in the Palo Alto district, its Administration is the worst place to deal with. Families want to be free of all involvement with the district as quickly as possible. It is not likely all families are hiding their youth's struggles. More accurately, the school district does not want the public to know about its high rates of student self harm and suicide to conceal the district's knowledge beforehand and their refusal to act. It needs to hide that many are Special Education students who were bullied and denied services and protection when the district knew they were being harmed.

The reality is the Palo Alto district has not hired or retained qualified staff, and its programs are only in place at some schools. Instead, the district provides aides a few hours training, grants them a new title and pays them more, then tells families these aides are now qualified to work with all mentally ill and disabled children. Training is often conducted by unlicensed and non-Board certified trainers, who lack knowledge to train, or even serve these students unsupervised. While this would not be legal outside of a school district, Palo Alto school district pay attorney and lobbyists highly to ensure the lowest standards, and kids are pushed into inappropriate programs because the district claims to have created them.

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