Pleasanton Weekly

Opinion - March 5, 2010


Helping students face tragedies

Pleasanton's school teachers, counselors and administrators deserve praise for their quick and ongoing response to the death of Amador Valley High freshman Evelyn Gonzalez, who died Feb. 19 after being hit by a Union Pacific train near the Santa Rita Road crossing. Her death has been ruled a suicide. Almost immediately, students, most of them still in classrooms, began meeting with teachers, administrators and counselors in an outpouring of grief and a search for why this 14-year-old classmate would take her own life.

What happened here that Friday seems all too familiar. Another Amador Valley student, William Russell, committed suicide in October 2007 by stepping in front of a train near the site of Friday's incident. In Palo Alto, four high school students committed suicide last year within a span of six months.

Alex Briscoe, director of healthcare services for Alameda County, told the school board that suicide in the 14-24 year age group is now the second leading cause of death, following behind car accidents, with homicides the third leading cause. He described all three as behavioral motivated, explaining that they involve the decisions that these young people make on their own and often without asking for help or receiving professional counseling. These losses are especially tragic because many could be prevented with appropriate help. A recent California Health Department report shows that depression has reached epidemic proportions among youth. In the U.S., nearly 5,000 young people die from suicide each year. For every youth that dies, an additional 100 to 200 suicide attempts are made. Countless other young people struggle with serious depression that goes undiagnosed or untreated.

In Pleasanton, counselors at Amador High stayed late into the evening the Friday of Gonzalez's death and returned to school Saturday to meet with another group of 75 grieving students and some parents. Counselors and district staff also met on Sunday to develop an action plan to comfort students and to assess programs in place or needed to prevent another tragedy on campuses. Because schools were closed the following Monday, Feb. 22 in observance of Washington's birthday, the district began Tuesday with counselors, teachers and administrators in place to address the issue head-on. When Kevin Johnson, director of pupil services, learned that an accident had tied up traffic on I-580, with some commuting teachers stuck in traffic, staff worked quickly to assemble counselors and available teachers from Foothill High School and the middle schools to Amador by 7:30 a.m. so that every classroom would have professionals there to talk to arriving students.

At the school board meeting, Johnson outlined further steps that district was taking to deal with behavioral issues that could lead to life-threatening actions, including asking Briscoe to talk about suicide concerns and how the county can help. He has also enlisted the support of Axis Community Health, the YMCA and Hope Hospice to help plan programs and added counseling services to keep a better watch on the teenage population so that those who are troubled can receive immediate help. The school district's student support tip line, 417-5199, is also being programmed to accept text messages, the common way teens communicate these days.

These initiatives and school board President Chris Grant's efforts to form a partnership with Briscoe's healthcare services, the city of Pleasanton and the school district are a commendable response at a time when training and education within our community will hopefully provide the resources to make sure these kinds of tragedies don't happen again.


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