By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Guidance counselor Pay Conway at Gunn High School in Palo Alto.
Four students at Gunn High School in Palo Alto committed suicide on the train tracks in the community within the past year. Eight to 10 possible suicide attempts were prevented by police and others in the same location during this period. The “suicide cluster” has devastated students, staff and parents in the Gunn High School community.
Staff have been working hard to provide new services — as well as increasing awareness of existing services — to prevent such tragedies in the future. Staff also brought in resiliency expert Kenneth Ginsburg as a guest speaker.
The counseling department, whose members belong to the Palo Alto Education Association, has been instrumental in responding to the needs of grieving students, parents, staff and community members during these difficult times, and recently shared their perspective during a roundtable discussion. It was the first time they have spoken publicly about what has happened and the prevention measures they have undertaken, despite nationwide media attention focused on the school and requests from Dr. Phil and other talk show hosts for interviews.
Much of the problem, counselors say, revolves around students’ inability to cope with disappointment and setbacks. This appears to be more prevalent with the younger generation than with previous generations, and can be attributed to several factors, they say.
“When problems arise, parents insist on speaking with teachers and counselors themselves, rather than letting their teens work out the problem,” relates guidance counselor Jovi Dewett.
“The mantra is that kids need to learn how to handle things,” says guidance counselor Linda Kirsch.
It has not been uncommon for parents at the school to fly into crisis mode if their child receives a B instead of an A, and to beg the teacher to change it to an A so it won’t hurt the student’s chances of being accepted into a top university. Some students have even been told that their parents won’t pay for their college education unless they are accepted at Harvard or Yale.
“Many times, students shy away from a more difficult class,” says Dewett. “When that happens, students become very fearful of taking on challenges because they don’t know what the outcome will be.”
When students are afraid to take risks, they begin to lack confidence. And when they lack confidence, they lose their ability to cope with life’s setbacks. Many students, they say, can’t talk to their parents about this and ultimately become depressed.
“Unfortunately, our students are not learning the natural process for problem-solving in life,” says guidance counselor Pat Conway.
Counselors have been communicating with parents about these issues and have also held Parent Education Nights. Counselors communicate that the best college match for their child may not be the most prestigious one. And they are asking parents in no uncertain terms to stop “rescuing” their children at every opportunity so that students can learn how to take responsibility for their actions and make decisions.
The school’s website has posted listings of resources for emotional support that are available 24 hours a day in the community, including counseling services, a suicide hotline, and a hotline for gay and lesbian youth. For students requiring immediate counseling, the school has increased its ties to outside mental health as well.
Guidance counselor Bill Christensen says counselors are accessible to students, and that the “intensity of their needs” has increased. With an open-door policy before school, at lunch and after school, students are encouraged to talk with adults if they have any concerns about their peers. Students are also encouraged to talk to peer counselors, and as part of a grassroots campaign are wearing shirts that say “Talk to Me.” Training has been offered so that students will know how to recognize — and deal with — suicidal thoughts and feelings in themselves and others.
“We want to shatter the idea that it’s okay to keep silent if someone has questions or concerns about someone else,” says guidance counselor Lisa Kaye. “We are beginning to break the silence and help people communicate and come forward. The walls are coming down. Kids are coming in and expressing lots of concerns.”
The presentation by Kenneth Ginsburg was very beneficial, says Christensen, for putting things into perspective — especially when it comes to defining what is or is not a crisis. The pediatrician told the crowd that part of being resilient is determining what’s really worth stressing over.
“It was an amazing event,” says Kirsch. “We had parents, students and people from churches in the area attend. We have wonderful students that attend this school, and we must do everything we can to help them thrive.”