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March 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Our Town: The dangers of youth Our Town: The dangers of youth (March 09, 2005)

by Don Kazak

Barbara Spreng's sunny disposition and warm smile belie her determination to help do something about how stressed-out children are these days, especially high school students.

Spreng, as president of the Palo Alto PTA Council, is quietly seeking out information about the stress and pressures to excel that many students face.

Her interest is strong enough that she has already had an informal talk with Superintendent Mary Frances Callan about staying involved with the issue after her PTA presidency ends June 30.

"A culmination of things" motivated her into action, she said last week. "We've suffered some tragic losses in recent years," a reference to two student suicides within the last three years.

But it was a third suicide -- that of Adam Ojakian, 21, son of Palo Alto City Councilman Vic Ojakian on Dec. 16 -- that "pushed me over the edge," she said.

When the PTA Council board met in January, the death of Ojakian's son was on everyone's mind, she said. As a result, the PTA Council will sponsor a forum, "Stressed-Out Students: Fostering Resilience in Our Youth," to be held in the school district board room, 25 Churchill Ave. at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, March 15.

A suicide of a young person traumatizes the community and makes everything else fall away, rendered mundane by the scope of the tragedy. But it is the day-to-day stress that worries Spreng -- and not just that felt by students.

"I've seen more stress than ever before in parents," she said. "I don't know why things are more stressful, but they are."

Unlike some other parents, Spreng has a reference point to think about. She wasPTA Council president in 1989-90 when her two older stepsons, now 26 and 30, were going through school. Her youngest son, Tyler, is a 6th grader at Jordan Middle School.

"I have seen a great change," she said. "Kids are so booked now they need Palm Pilots to keep track of their schedules."

The activities aren't different, and the competition to get into the best universities is brutal. But it's hard to differentiate how much pressure is generated by parents who want the best for their sons and daughters.

"To some degree, parents' expectations have increased," she thinks.

But peer pressure can be rough, too. "I hear many more parents expressing concerns about bullying, about peer pressure and fitting in," she said. "It's starting earlier. Tyler saw it in the 4th and 5th grades, which seemed a little early."

Attempting to deal with student stress is nothing new, but there may be more urgency today as the pressures on young people continue to increase.

"We're seeing more stress at the high schools," said Stephanie Wick, executive director of the Foundation for College Education in East Palo Alto. "It has increased dramatically in the last few years."

The pressures on students to succeed are part of living in a stressful world, but it seems to be becoming more intense. Figuring out why could fuel a half-dozen doctoral dissertations at Stanford and still not come up with an answer.

"It's so big it's hard to do anything about it," Spreng said. "It's the economy, it's Silicon Valley -- it's so far beyond your control that you can feel powerless. We can't change how hard it is to get into college, but there are things we can do, including helping parents deal with stress."

"It's really more of a question than an answer," she added. "But maybe we can enhance our kids' toolboxes in dealing with it."

A painful experience from long ago helps drive Spreng to care about protecting children from stress. One of her best friends from when she was growing up in suburban Portland, Ore., killed himself after they had graduated from high school. They were pals, not boyfriend-girlfriend, but deeply cared about each other.

The pain of her friend's suicide long ago stays with her and tt can bring tears to her eyes even now. There are never any answers to such desperate acts -- to questions that last a lifetime for those left behind.

Youth should be about promise of life to come, not about the despair of feeling overwhelmed.

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be emailed at

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