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."
Help is available
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
Read more: How to help those in crisis