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As director leaves, Project Safety Net hones mission

Original post made on Aug 30, 2013

A community coalition that sprang up in the wake of a Palo Alto student "suicide cluster" in 2009, 2010 and 2011 has lost its full-time director just as it is adopting a new organizational plan for the future.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, August 30, 2013, 9:40 AM

Comments (28)

Posted by confused
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 30, 2013 at 9:21 am

I cannot for the life of me figure out what this story is about or what happened. It seems like the city tried to give 2 million dollars to PSN but a consultant overseeing the distribution of funds balked at the grant because PSN did not have any clear mission or purpose. Now there has been some kind of process (who was in that process? When did it happen?) that allowed PSN to get the money. That resulted in changing the mission and goals in some way (more talk about suicide? Fewer goals?) but the new mission and document produced (by who? When?) isn't linked. I have read this story 4 times and I have no idea literally what it is saying.

What is the high school student quoted trying to express when she says that "it's kind of like having a yearly flooding problem and putting up a dam, but not to address that there's too much water in the first place." What is the water in this analogy? Is it the poor mental health of teens in the community? is she arguing for a more "wellness" based approach? It seems from the story that there were two camps -- one wanted more suicide and mental health focus and the other "upstream" wellness concerns, but really I can't tell what happened. Can you rewrite this or at least link to the PSN documents you are trying to describe so that we can read them for ourselves?

Also, how about a little update on what has happened with suicide in the community since 2011? How many attempts? How many deaths? How does PA compare to other communities? Is the cluster over or is it still ongoing? There is an ominous quote from Becky Beacom about how "it will happen again." What is the "it" in this story?

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:03 am

Talking about teen suicide is an important issue but unfortunately it gets difficult because any public forum has to be censored.

We do need data about suicide trends to make any sense of any of this. We also need to know if the notes left behind (if there are any) blame parents, schools, peer pressure, etc. Each suicide is different and each suicide does need to have the details kept private, but to make overall, sweeping judgments blaming mental health does very little to bring hope to those of us just trying to do our best as parents.

Yes, mental health is important. But every child has different levels of being able to deal with what might be called trigger points.

Please give us some relevant data so that we can look at the overall picture. We do not need to know every attempt's individual case history, but trends can be found and reported without invasion of privacy.

Posted by confused
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:09 am

Can you just provide a link to the PSN "theory of change" document (whatever that means) quoted and referenced in this story? Also, please explain the budget process, who is in charge of the $2 million and how it will be spent. Please explain whether PSN is a governmental organization or a nonprofit. If it is governmental, please explain how the "steering committee" is selected or appointed, what terms members serve for, what transparency is involved in the selection process, and whether this is a commission like HRC or transportation or some other thing. What is the relationship of PSN to the school district. If it is receiving $2M in public funds there should be greater transparency than this.

Posted by Observer
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:30 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Gunn Dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:34 am

I have to admit that I am having a hard time understanding what this story is actually saying. What is Project Safety Net doing now that they are going to stop doing? Are they going to be doing new things? Is the $2 million to be spent in the next year? The next 5 years? Next 10 years? Was the City dissatisfied with the current organization, and that's why this change is happening?

Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:39 am

The School District is a key member of this coalition and to date has blocked the implementation of key Project Safety Net recommendations. Recommendation P8 - which prescribed actions that the district should take to reduce overall stress - has not been implemented.

The homework policy which took a year for a parent/teacher committee to draft has not been implemented and has been dropped from the set of Focus Goals for the FY13-14 school year. Test stacking was not addressed at all.

Improvements to the high schoool guidance delivery system to achieve comparability and improve satisfaction and efficacy at the two high schools in the district has not progressed beyond funding of $300,000 at both campuses to support the existing model.

There is still no comprehensive plan to provide immediate services in the wake of a trauma incident on campus. Thus an attempt on the Gunn campus in the spring was not addressed beyond a small group of students. While the student body knew of this incident, Facebook was the only source of information leaving parents and the community out of the loop and unable to help their students.

The District has been a singularly poor partner in Project Safety Net. In another thread PA mom speculated as to why the District has not responded:

"Palo Alto has treated the fact that people who die by suicide most often suffer from a "diagnosable mental illness" as a very comforting thought. Under that banner the schools have resisted needed counseling improvements that would have provided more touchpoints, and more outreach that is not dependent on student effort and help-seeking. After all, the faulty logic goes, if suicide is caused by mental illness, there's not much we can do. It emanates from within the person's brain, and there is no effort we can make, short of identifying those with mental illness, that will make a difference. Certainly we should not worry about stress.

Every single connection in this line of thinking is incorrect. First, it ignores the role of stressors such as bullying in causing the "diagnosable mental illness" in the first place. PTSD is a diagnosable mental illness but it is caused by stress due to trauma. Some illnesses have physical roots, some have stress-based roots, and some are exacerbated or caused by both factors or an interaction between them that is poorly understood at this time.

Second, even for those who have an illness with hereditary roots, stress and lack of connectedness exacerbates that illness and likely increases the vulnerability to suicide.

Third, reducing suicide risk is done most effectively by increasing connectedness which reduces stress and provides the ability to withstand stressors that might trigger feelings of worthlessness -- breakups, failing grades, bullying. Connectedness cannot depend on student help-seeking because those who are most vulnerable are typically very unlikely to seek help and have impaired social networks and connectedness and isolation.

I think that the reason that this view has gained so much traction in the community is that it does 2 things for people: it allows them to hold the idea of suicide at arm's length -- those who die by suicide are sick and my child is not sick, so my child is not at risk; and it allows those who want to maintain to status quo to argue that reducing stress or reforming counseling won't help anyway, a false and dangerous idea.

SOS is effective in part because it aims to increase connectedness by leveraging the networks that students already have (between peers). But connection to caring adults is also important. Don't kid yourself -- by allowing your school board to decide not to implement advisory at Gunn like at Paly, you deprived Gunn students of more opportunities for connectedness that would help to counteract the stressful and competitive nature of the school. It has been more than sad to watch the district justify this lack of action by saying that suicide is caused by mental illness and the schools are irrelevant.

The environment is relevant no matter what, but for those who may suffer from a developing or undiagnosed condition, building connections to concerned adults that do not depend on youth help-seeking behavior can be a lifesaver."

If the City is contributing $2 million to Project Safety Net, the City Council has a responsibility to ensure that their partner at the District is implementing key recommendations.

Posted by reader reaction
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:43 am

Project Safety Net was a way for PAUSD to let the community know that they are the real player in setting the tone of stress and over achievement. By involving other groups they hoped to make the community aware that insisting local industry and university practices be adopted for school children is a bad idea. I don't think the community has taken the hint yet.

Posted by Shame
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 30, 2013 at 11:13 am

Thank you for posting a link to that document. It is extremely enlightening to see what happened. There are many worthwhile items here such as reducing the access to lethal means and identifying gaps in mental health services.

PAUSD was allowed to edit its participation out of this document entirely. Rather than being one leg of the stool it is now missing entirely. The prior PSN document contained item P-8 that promised an evaluation of strategies to reduce sources of stress and distress in our schools. That is now gone.

That happened due to the politics of schools in this community in which district officials resisted, PTAC backed that resistance, and the youth of this community were absolutely betrayed.

There is good work that will probably happen as a result of PSN's shifted focus on suicide prevention. That's important and it is necessary. But the abandonment of any mention of school-based issues is despicable. Both systemic/environmental and mental health based solutions need to be provided, and the school-based issues should be included. As everyone associated with this debacle knows, in a survey of PSN coalition members last year P-8 was voted one of the top 3 goals. But it was deleted due to district and PTAC pressure.

Everyone associated with this stunning retreat should be ashamed. That doesn't negate the importance of suicide prevention work that is identified here. But it is a very partial solution to the well-being of PA teens and Becky Beacom you know that. Shame.

Posted by Dan
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 30, 2013 at 11:19 am

A 15 member "steering committee", 20 (or 22) member organizations, a full-time paid staffer, a paid consulting firm, additional staffing provided by the school district and the City of Palo Alto, $2M in funding from the City, 41 attributes, 22 (or 9) strategies, and rent-a-cops at 1 or 2 of the 3 crossings.
I understand the impulse for a lot of people to want to get involved and do something personally, but wouldn't it have been a more effective use of resources to simply hire an additional counselor at Paly and Gunn to focus solely on this issue and put motion alarms on the tracks?

Posted by concerned
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 30, 2013 at 11:47 am

I'm concerned that posters here are offering their opinions but stating them as facts. Causes of suicide are incredibly complex. There is no easy, one step answer. The opinion that adding a TA system at Gunn would increase connectedness is an true in that it is one more adult in a kid's life. However, it doesn't mean that the kid will feel connected to that adult and would even go to that person for help. . I don't know any student at Paly who would say their TA is an important person in their life unless they have also had them as a teacher, Club monitor, etc. Kids need to have increased connections in every part of their life - their family, community, church, etc, not just schools. The TA at Gunn ship has sailed. Start focusing on other solutions. Web Link

Posted by Shame
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm

You are right that causes of suicide are complex. Prevention efforts should focus on increasing connectedness (per the CDC flyer that you posted).

Kids spend 8 hours a day in schools. They don't spend 8 hours a day in clubs, sports, community, church, etc. That is why school-based prevention and connectedness is so critical. Yet PSN, at the urging of PAUSD just deleted all the school-based prevention from our own plan.

You don't have to look hard to understand why these strategies matter -- all you have to do is read Durkheim On Suicide. The degree to which students feel integrated into social structure affects suicide rates. When individual feel isolated either due to disintegration of social structure or due to overly rigid social structures in which their place is marginal, anomic suicide increases. Connectedness is not only about identifying students with mental health issues -- it is about preventing mental health issues from developing by integrating individuals within a given social structure.

I will agree with you that the TA at Gunn ship has sailed, however I think we have different feelings about that. I agree that it's important to focus on what can be accomplished and at this time, with this school board and administration, improving counseling at Gunn is not possible so yes, other solutions should be tried. But the reason that happened is important: community leaders who could and should have advocated for this change didn't. They kept their heads down, privileged their own professional relationships over what was best for kids, criticized the board and the failures on TA privately but not publicly, and when there was retaliation against those such as Denise Clark Pope who did support advisory, they were silent. Community "leaders" privately supported TA at Gunn but didn't want to take what they saw as the "risk" of saying it in public. It was an exercise in unbridled cowardice.

One could say: well, the people get the government they deserve that would be true. But what about the kids getting the services they deserve? What about the kids getting the connections they need to counteract the anomie, to quote Durkheim, so prevalent at Gunn and other competitive schools in the 21st century economy? Are our youth getting what they deserve? They can't even vote -- although judging from student endorsements in the last election if the could vote, it would not have been for the winners of the school board election or their policies.

So, yes. Ship has sailed. Shame on us.

Posted by The right decision
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 30, 2013 at 12:36 pm

When the surveys state that no Paly Student would go to their TA with a personal problem or recommend a friend go to them, that leaves very little room to argue that TA promotes connectedness.
Gunn, correctly, passed on boarding that sinking ship.

Posted by concerned
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 30, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Yes, they spend about 7 hours a day at school and come into contact with many adults. Teachers, staff, etc. Adding a TA every few weeks for a short time doesn't seem like it would add a lot to many kids.

Posted by confused
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Watch the board video here, at 2:19 to see the Gunn student board rep give a scathing report about Gunn counseling, and watch Dr. Skelly stiff-arm his concerns at 3:10. Ship not only sailed, it sank.

Web Link

Posted by Gunn Dad
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 30, 2013 at 2:05 pm

The data showing that TA works better than traditional counseling on virtually every dimension is remarkably clear, and even the district's strategic plan survey talks about the "counseling gap" between Paly and Gunn.
The fact is that school board members lacked the commitment and courage to stand up for Gunn students against opposition from staff members at Gunn and the district who didn't want to bother making a change. The writing was on the wall when Dana Tom (not somebody you want to depend on to stand up for anybody) flip-flopped in the spring.

Posted by new day
a resident of Mayfield
on Aug 30, 2013 at 2:20 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by not as confused
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 30, 2013 at 3:33 pm


"Scathing report about Gunn counseling"? Doesn't seem that way to me.

The Gunn student rep complained about two things.

One, he reported that, on the first day of school, he was not able to change his schedule before classes started so he came in at lunch. Apparently lots of students had the same idea and lots got in line ahead of him. Instead of coming back during a prep period or after school, he decided to wait for what turned out to be much longer than he liked.

His rec to the board: let students make changes before school starts.

I just checked with one of my sources and here's the scoop: Gunn does that. Students were given their schedules 3 days before school started and told several times that counselors were in and available for scheduling corrections starting the day BEFORE school started.

The Paly school board rep said that his complaint was not about "counseling" per se.

Second, he was dismayed that his counselor wasn't in her office when he dropped in and she didn't have office hours posted.

My source: Gunn tells students who want to see their counselor on routine things to set up an appointment. It's posted on its website.

BTW Schedule changes are much harder at Paly which require students to run around to get two signatures. Paly students have to set up a time to meet with their TAs too; they don't have daily office hours. If I recall, TAs say to give them 24 hours to get back to you so students have to wait to connect at Paly too.

Posted by confused
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 30, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Here's a transcript of the Student comments. He also started the meeting off by recounting the most recent student suicide attempt which left a Gunn student seriously brain damaged. "We're trying to deal with this" he said. Pairing that comment with his later comments on the lack of counselor availability should make every Gunn parent absolutely sick at heart and should make the board members ashamed of themselves. [Portion removed.]

"In response to Ms. Sharp, on the Gunn Counseling department concerns, I wholeheartedly agree. For example, I know a major source of frustration for Gunn students has been schedule changes in the first 2 days of school. I came to school at 7:00am to get a schedule change and actually didn't get in until 1pm in the afternoon because I was told to come back and had to wait in a 2 hour line to change one class. Another friend of mine, who had a conflict, had been waiting to talk to his counseling for the first 2 days of school. As far as I know, still hasn't talked to his counselor. I feel that one thing that could be done to improve counseling would be for the counselors to start working a week before school starts to make appointments with students for schedule changes.

"I also don't feel that the counselors at Gunn are very transparent with their hours. For example if I want to talk to my counselor, if I go into the counseling office its usually a 50/50 chance that my counselor's even there. So I feel there needs to be a more transparency for the counselors' schedules and the times you can meet with them."

Posted by Bad Company
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 30, 2013 at 4:31 pm

At a recent wedding reception we attended in SF, one of the other guests at our table was asked what she did for a living. When she replied that she taught at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, another guest at the table ( who unfortunately once worked at PA City Hall) shrieked, "You mean Suicide High?"

I was so embarrassed I left the table to avoid saying anything regrettable. Once I pulled myself together, I realized that our schools are now known more for negative things than positive ones........

Last winter at a Christmas party in San Jose, someone asked us a out our "problematic superintendent of schools". Apparently Kevin Skelly's antics are also known far and wide.

Time to perform some damage control, PAUSD!

Posted by concerned
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 30, 2013 at 4:54 pm

"our schools are known more for negative things than positive ones..." So that explains the drop in home prices? People love gossip.

Posted by extra concerned
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 30, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Thanks "concerned" for telling it like it is: it doesn't matter how many children attempt suicide as long as home prices don't decline. Now shut up about bullying, counseling, and homework and keep those donations coming, these staff appreciation lunches aren't going to cook themselves.

Posted by concerned
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 30, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Extra concerned: You think ours is the only district in which children attempt to die by suicide. Open your eyes. We are no different than any other district in the country. Unfortunately, death by suicide occurs across the world by teens. You just know about it because it happened on a public space: train tracks. Most deaths by suicide are kept private. This is a bigger problem than you know. Palo Alto is no different than communities across the state in terms of incidence. At least our community is aware of it. What I said in the earlier post was that the majority of people are unaware of the conflicts in this community.

Posted by Trying
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Aug 30, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Some of the people involved are very happy to spend their time quibbling and pointing fingers and deciding who to blame. Here's a thought - pick up one of the developmental assets and find a way to be an asset builder for a real live young person in the community. Once you have done that successfully, repeat. When your life is over, you will be able to look back on all the amazing people you gave a hand to when they were young and perhaps struggling, rather than all the useless points you scored blustering over nonsense.

Posted by reader reaction
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 31, 2013 at 9:30 am

Well judging by the comments, I was right about the community not taking the hint. Local parents are embarrassed when they must tell friends their kids are not going to elite schools. Friends use their kids' acceptances and high school records as part of their own "life resume" and success story.

PAUSD is well aware of what kind of community they serve and who is paying them. If they don't pile on the pressure they will be fired and they know it. Sure they should have more courage than they do and sure many teachers and administrators are in agreement with the community. But at the same time local businesses, universities and most of all residents really control the situation. The head of PSN had just realized that changing this community's shallow value system is impossible. Good for her.

Posted by ditto
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 31, 2013 at 10:44 am

"The head of PSN had just realized that changing this community's shallow value system is impossible."
I did the same. Leaving PAUSD was one of the smartest/best decisions of my life.

Posted by almost done
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 31, 2013 at 11:40 am

I agree with a couple of the above posters. The biggest root of the problems in our school district is parental attitudes and behavior rather than the schools themselves. As a family that never felt we fit in with the prevailing parenting style in this town, we are happy this is our last year in the school district after many years.

I'll add that we are very grateful for the great schools and the many fantastic teachers. I'll also add that the best adjusted kids we've known here were the ones from families that gave them some breathing room, more than anything else.

Posted by Dearly Departed
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm

The recently departed Paly principal once told me that they try every year to relieve some of the stress on the kids, but it is the parents who run it right up again in response.

Posted by pspage
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 1, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Thank you, Christina Llerena, for your devotion to focusing the vision and goals of PSN to be more effective. Having participated in meetings for the last two years, my opinion is that this is indeed 2 groups, as the article articulates: those focused on long-term mental health and well-being for our youth; and immediate crisis intervention for potentially suicidal students.

Christina is right in stating that a group that coalesces around crisis needs to do the hard work of focusing on its common mission, and I saw Christina working to focus in on that at every session, with mixed support.

PSN has to articulate its mission and focus if it's to be effective and produce results. It's a shame they''ve burned out an incredibly dedicated, competent leader.

Those of you who have great ideas and strong feelings about ways to achieve PSN's mission/s should attend PSN's meetings and get involved. You can learn more at Project Safety Net's website.

Personally I feel this group will only be effective when it organizes itself to be at the service of a youth-managed council, rather than excluding their voices.

Thank you, Christina, for your amazing patience, your willingness to "reach across the aisle" and include all views and voices. You will be sorely missed.

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