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Why Are Palo Alto's Kids Killing Themselves?
Diana Kapp | Photo: Justin Maxon | May 22, 2015
A panicked town struggles with a wave of suicides.
Along the quiet, manicured streets of Palo Alto, million-dollar ranch homes twinkle with tastefully strung holiday lights. In one of the front yards, groups of teenagers are standing around in the unseasonably warm December air, double-fisting Budweisers and iPhones. The students seem mentally drained and emotionally exhausted—ready to blow off some steam as another intense semester at Gunn High School comes to a close. Inside, the living room feels like the climactic party scene of every teen movie—kids chattering, hip-hop blasting, the pungent aroma of pot in the air, not an adult in sight. Winter break is so close you can taste it.
Suddenly someone notices that a classmate—a junior we’ll call Joe—is missing. He had a fight with his girlfriend, one person says. He could be suicidal. Terrified, 16-year-old Martha Cabot sounds the alarm, alerting two kids beside her, who tell two others. Instantly, there’s a commotion. The yard and the living room empty, the sober kids jumping in cars, everyone else swarming down the tree-lined street toward the railroad tracks at East Meadow Drive—not far from where two Gunn classmates recently leapt in front of speeding Caltrains. Martha, slowed by a bum knee, nominates herself to stay back at the house in case Joe returns. She walks back inside—and there, sitting on the den sofa, alone and clueless, is Joe. “Where were you?” Martha blurts. “I was in the bathroom,” he says, confused. “I was taking a piss.”
While the story, as Martha tells it, is mordantly funny, the anxiety and terror that underlie it are anything but. It’s been like this for months around Palo Alto—everyone on edge, leaping to conclusions, flipping out, fearing the worst. New stories arise on a near-daily basis: A hotheaded senior argues with his dad and takes off, igniting a chain reaction that mobilizes neighbors up and down his street. Among them is a psychiatrist named Daniel Saal, who searches the Alta Mesa cemetery by flashlight while others station themselves at nearby train crossings. (The senior returns, unharmed, several hours later.) Saal’s daughter, Lauren, a Gunn junior, has been having regular nightmares and has started sleeping with her mother. Teachers dissolve into tears mid-class; students describe feelings akin to those of soldiers coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Just hearing a voice on the classroom loudspeaker, or seeing some teachers gathered in a huddle, is enough to set off internal alarms: “I always think,” says junior Lisa Hao, “did somebody else kill himself?”
“We’re designed to tolerate a certain amount of trauma and stress,” says Daniel Saal, “but it’s the repetitious nature of the suicides that has become too much.” At 1 a.m. on Tuesday, November 4, just six weeks before the false alarm at the house party, Cameron Lee, a beloved junior, killed himself on the tracks. Less than three weeks earlier, Quinn Gens, who had graduated from Gunn in May, had ended his life the same way. Two and a half months later, senior Harry Hannyi Lee also died by suicide. Six weeks after that, so did Paly (Palo Alto) High sophomore Qingyao Zhu. And this string of tragedy is not unprecedented in Palo Alto: Over a seven-month period just five years earlier, four Gunn students and a recent graduate killed themselves. For the parents, kids, and concerned citizens of Palo Alto, two suicide clusters in the space of one adolescent generation has been almost too much to bear.
Cameron’s death in November, in particular, sent the community reeling. A goofy basketball player with short brown hair and a pixie face, Cam, as he was known to friends, was the last kid anyone would have suspected of being troubled. His classmates describe him as having been happy, nonchalant, and popular, and that’s exactly how he appears in the homecoming photos posted on so many Facebook pages before his death: a handsome, grinning kid, standing smack in the center of his clique. “If you told me that someone in my friend group would commit suicide, he would be my straight-up last guess,” says Lisa Hao.
We’re at a Starbucks near school, and Lisa and two girlfriends, all in jeans and boots, are talking about how the suicides keep happening “in such a freakish way.” It’s mid-January, and the loss of Cam still feels close and painful—Lisa hasn’t found the grief counselors provided by the school to be of much help. “They kind of, like, force you to talk to them,” she says, “but you don’t know them, and they don’t know you, and every time you get a brand-new person.” The kids, she adds, have had to hold each other up. “A lot of people take on the sadness and the suicidal thoughts that their friends are having.”
The conversation moves to other sources of angst, like the upcoming SAT. Junior Yuki Klotz-Burwell is particularly worried because her twin brother typically bests her academically, particularly in math and science. “Both my parents are computer scientists,” she says. “My brother’s really good at everything STEM [science, tech, engineering, and math]—which they value a lot and is basically what Gunn and Palo Alto are all about. If you’re not into that, you feel that you are not going to succeed.” Her friend Ryeri Lim, a reserved junior originally from Korea, concurs: “I feel like I’m never doing enough, not using my time wisely, not working hard enough. It goes deep, this disappointment in ourselves.” At Gunn, she says, “we don’t have any time for fun now, so we’ll get into a good college and make money, so we can be happy in the future.” Still, they don’t blame their school, and they don’t blame their parents. “It’s more our community,” says Lisa. “Our schools have to reflect the ideals of our community.”
Suicide clusters—defined as a group of three or more suicides in close time or geographic proximity—are exceedingly rare: There are an average of five per year in the United States. Most common among adolescents, college students, prisoners, and soldiers, clusters have occurred in locales both like and unlike educated, wealthy Palo Alto. Recently, there have been clusters at high schools in Fairfax County, Virginia; at the University of Pennsylvania; and at MIT. On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, nine young people have killed themselves since last December.
But how exactly does one teen suicide—4,600 of which happen yearly—influence another? Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, believes that one teen’s suicide can serve as a trigger for another vulnerable individual. “Generally, teenagers model,” she says. “Someone is already thinking about it, but has enough of a braking mechanism. Then someone dies, the sail changes, and suddenly it’s a possibility.” (The same holds true across the age spectrum: The day after Robin Williams’s suicide last August, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline fielded the greatest number of calls in its history.)
Saal, the psychiatrist, believes that many students at his daughter’s school are showing signs of acute stress disorder, a more immediate, transient, and nonpathological response to trauma. Even a single incident of stress, Saal says, can induce “a collection of overpowering recall.” While most people are capable of coping at that level, a cascade of trauma like that experienced by Palo Alto’s teens can produce more radical responses.
Lisa Hao recognizes the dynamic. “After Cam, [suicide] suddenly became an option,” the Gunn junior says. “It was, like, ‘Wow, this is really easy.’” An alarming percentage of Gunn’s 1,900 students, it appears, have been plagued by similar thoughts. According to principal Denise Herrmann, 52 of them were hospitalized or treated for “significant suicide ideation” between August and April of this school year—“a very high number,” according to Roni Gillenson, program director of Adolescent Counseling Services, which provides psychological counseling to Gunn students. Shashank Joshi, director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship Program at Stanford and a consultant to the Palo Alto Unified School District, tells me that Gunn’s ratio of high-risk students, while “higher than we would expect for a school of this size,” is not dramatically different from national figures. Suicidal ideation, he argues, isn’t rare. What is unusual is the rate—four to five times the national average—at which Palo Alto kids are acting on their morbid thoughts.
It’s hard not to ache over these statistics—or to search desperately for ways to reverse them. As a former Palo Alto resident, a Stanford alum, and the mother of three young children, I followed news of the heartbreaking 2009–10 Gunn High cluster with a sense of suffocating unease. I wanted to write about the impact of the kids’ deaths on the town—and to ask what made Palo Alto different from other elite, affluent campus towns around the nation—but I was consistently shut out by the people closest to the events. The Palo Alto school district and community, terrified that media coverage—or even public utterance of the word “suicide”—would spread the contagion, implemented an unofficial gag order. The fear was too great—nobody would talk.
But with tragedy again stalking Gunn High, the community’s former reticence has dissolved. Galvanized by support on social media and enabled by the message-magnifying capabilities of YouTube—on which students like Martha Cabot have uploaded impassioned, widely watched speeches—a chorus of troubled voices has begun to pierce the silence. This time, my overtures to dozens of students, parents, and community members to talk about the suicides—what caused them, why they’ve continued, and how they might be stopped—were met with fast replies. Most people, in fact, were anxious to share, in great detail, what they’ve endured since the first Gunn student took his life back in May 2009.
This was particularly true of the teens, who volunteered acute insights about their town, their school, and the contradictions of a culture that demands personal excellence but withholds emotional support. They railed against their superintendent’s denials of responsibility; against the so-called Palo Alto mask that blocks reality in the name of perfection; against school officials’ lip service to bold change. “They just check boxes, put counselors in place so that it will look good, not thinking about how to do it in a way that really helps kids,” says Lauren Saal. Other students are eager to defend the school and knock what they perceive as victim-blaming. They decry attempts to fit all the suicides, as senior Anna Barbier says, “neatly under one umbrella.” “Fake” is the word used by two seniors to describe Gunn’s culture, which they fault for breeding intense competition while claiming to foster unity. But other students are frank about their own complicity in the noxious, cutthroat environment. “My dad always describes how when he was growing up, it was students against the system,” Anna says. “This is students against students.”
On January 24, Ian Cramer dug his iPhone out of his gym bag and glanced down at an entire screen filled with texts. “Are you OK?” “Hey, what’s up?” A star middleweight on Gunn’s wrestling team, the senior had been competing in an all-day meet, keeping him offline for hours. That morning, news that another Gunn senior had taken his life had spread through the student body at SMS speed. When she received the dreadful text, Anna’s first thought was “Holy god, it could be anybody.” The uncertainty, she says, drove her crazy: “First I went through all the senior guys on my street. You send a kind of cryptic message to see who is answering.”
Ian began returning texts, and his name was crossed off the maybe list. On Monday morning, the victim’s identity was released—Harry Lee, age 17—and the terror of the weekend was replaced by a devastating resignation. In a ritual that started after Cam’s death, dozens of Gunn students replaced their Facebook avatars with a message that read “We’re All in This Together” in white lettering on a red background. Harry and Ian had been scheduled to present their economics project on shipping container housing that Monday. Instead, Harry’s name would be atop another form letter that would be read aloud in class by every Gunn teacher—just two months after a similarly dispassionate letter was read about Cam.
The third Gunn suicide in less than four months pushed the community into panic. Trying to curb the hysteria, perhaps at the request of the district, Lee’s family released a statement claiming that school stress was not a factor in the teenager’s death. “Our son struggled with depression,” it read, “and he made it clear that the cause was not due to academic pressure at Gunn.” At a packed memorial service at Spangler Mortuary in Los Altos, Harry’s mother related that a few weeks prior, Harry had been deeply depressed, had even mentioned wanting to die. He was getting help, she said, but there were waits for referrals and appointments. In the end, it was too late.
This, tragically, is not an uncommon set of circumstances: In Palo Alto, as in many other cities, wait times to see a mental health professional are increasing as rates of depression soar. From 2006 to 2013, the incidence of depression among American teens increased by 35 percent, from 8 to 11 percent, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. At Gunn High, this uptick has been compounded by the sheer demand for services after each suicide. “At my best friend’s high-achieving school, kids are more stressed than depressed,” says Lauren Saal. “At Gunn, it’s more depressed than stressed.”
While specialists disagree on how often teen suicides are driven by impulse versus premeditation, they are in accord that the greatest risk factor is another youth suicide. Still, “most kids who are depressed don’t take their life,” says Joshi. “If you have academic stress and you also experience depression or anxiety, that amplifies that stress. Plus, I’m not sleeping, my parents are fighting, my girlfriend broke up with me—many of those things happened together, and it’s causing me to lose hope.” Another piece of the puzzle: “What is the quality of a teen’s relationships at home and at school?” There’s also academic stress and the “complex interplay” of his various environments. “And then,” says Joshi, “you add a train running through town.”
Erika Drazan, a pediatrician with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, lost her 17-year-old niece to suicide in October. She and her colleagues emphasize that the focus shouldn’t be solely on preexisting psychological conditions in students, but also on another critical factor: widespread and endemic stress. “Is suicide the tip of an iceberg?” she asks. And, if so, “what is underneath the iceberg? If there are individual suicides, how are all the rest of the kids doing who are vulnerable due to stress?” Plenty of Palo Alto high schoolers will attest to the toll that stress takes on their emotions. “Overall well-being is not good. Our mental health is not good,” says Carolyn Walworth, a junior at neighboring Paly High. Speaking at a March youth forum, her classmate, sophomore Cezanne Lane, echoed the sentiment: “You can feel stress,” she says, “radiating off people.”
Henry M. Gunn High School sits at the corner of Arastradero and Foothill, around two miles from the East Meadow Caltrain crossing and very near Stanford’s faculty row. Compared to the students at rival Paly, Gunn kids are stereotyped as being more academically intense, less spirited and sporty. Many are the children of Stanford professors; many more are the offspring of immigrants who came here for tech jobs and rapidly moved their families into the stable ranks of the upper-middle class. At lunch, kids speak Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese—nearly half the school is Asian. Sixty-four percent of the school’s 2015 graduating class had a grade point average of 3.51 or better at the end of their junior year.
To a person, Gunn students say that their school is unhealthily competitive. “If one person is succeeding, it means that someone else is falling behind,” says one senior. Sophomore Olivia Eck describes a culture of unbounded striving: “There’s no middle point for success. There’s no ‘I’m here and I’m happy with where I am.’ It’s always ‘I need to be up there,’” she says. The kids paint a picture of a sort of academic coliseum, where students look down their noses at peers in a lower math “lane,” guard their grade point averages like state secrets, brag about 2 a.m. cramming sessions, and consider a B a disaster.
While they’re relentlessly pushed to chase higher grades and greater commendations, students say, they are simultaneously pressured to maintain an air of confidence and composure. Gaby Candes, a Gunn sophomore whose parents are both Stanford professors, refers to the condition as “Stanford duck syndrome”: “Everybody puts on a front of being super-relaxed and perfect, but under the surface they’re kicking furiously,” she says. “When all you see is calm ducks, you think that you are the only one who’s not perfect.” The attitude even bleeds into class activities that are intended to ameliorate stress. “We’re always doing exercises where they say, ‘We all have problems, and other people have problems just like you,’” says junior Hayley Krolik. “But nobody really believes it. This isn’t really an environment where people talk about being less than perfect.”
With everyone paddling desperately (but stealthily) in pursuit of distinction, pulling out front becomes nearly impossible. “Everyone wants to be the one to stand out, because it’s really hard to stand out here,” says Hayley. Consequently, anything that gets you noticed—being gay, being Jewish, even being inordinately sad—garners social capital at Gunn. Depression is effectively “glorified,” a senior says, because it attracts attention.
That obsession with specialness extends to many parents. “Because we live in this extraordinary place that really has some singular qualities,” says Ken Dauber, a Palo Alto father and a member of the school board, “we think somehow that our kids are also singular and extraordinary. But they are just kids.” Dauber, a Google software engineer, and his wife, Michele, a Stanford law professor, are not immune to this overinflated feeling—or to its consequences. They lost their daughter, Amanda, to suicide in 2008, after she’d graduated from Rhode Island School of Design.
It was that event, and the subsequent spate of suicides in 2009–10, that incited Dauber to campaign for sweeping change. In what came “like a shot from nowhere,” as the Palo Alto Weekly reported in 2011, the techie with a sociology PhD called for new district leadership, deriding the “lack of urgency” in addressing the misery-producing school climate. Particularly enraging to Dauber was then-superintendent Kevin Skelly’s insistent denial of any direct connection between the Gunn suicides and the school. In response, Dauber launched We Can Do Better Palo Alto, an activist group that pushed for measures to reduce school stress and boost attention to the whole child. In 2012, he took a run at unseating several long-term school board members. He lost, narrowly, but continued to rail against the crisis of sleep-deprived, stressed-out kids, eventually scoring a board seat in 2014.
Change, however, has not come easily to Palo Alto. An agenda of school reforms was proffered in 2009 by a consortium that included faith leaders, the YMCA, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, and the Palo Alto police, among a dozen other agencies. The ensuing Project Safety Net (PSN) proposed a dense deck of 22 initiatives to curb suicides and foster a more supportive environment. The project started with the low-hanging fruit: fielding a volunteer army of track watchers to monitor the most visible Caltrain intersections; instituting a new required course, Titan 101, that included a mental health curriculum; moving fall-semester finals ahead of winter break; and distributing books on stress relief and relaxation to faculty members.
But many of the project’s well-considered action items proved problematic. Some, like mental health screening, were significantly more complex than anticipated: Parental consent issues flared up, and inpatient services for those found to be at risk were wanting. Fall-semester finals were moved, but efforts to avoid “stacking” of tests and homework on an everyday basis flopped. A policy to limit homework was adopted—and overwhelmingly ignored. The bulk of school counseling is still carried out by unpaid interns—master’s students, mostly—who typically stay just one to two years, undermining the larger goal of tight relationships between providers and kids. As Kathleen Blanchard, whose son, Jean-Paul, was the first student lost in the 2009 cluster, chides, “A plan is not action.”
Crucially, some of the most widely accepted changes have been undercut by the students themselves. In 2011, Gunn’s start time was moved to 8:25 a.m., based upon research indicating that later-morning classes improve sleep, boost academic performance, and decrease incidents of depression. But students clamored for an optional 7:20 a.m. class, known as “zero period.” A recent push by the school to eliminate academic classes during zero period erupted into a showdown with students who desired more flex-time. (In April, Palo Alto Unified superintendent Max McGee finally settled the dispute by discontinuing AP calculus, chemistry, and other heavy academic courses at the early hour, but allowing “nonacademic” electives like gym to continue.)
The current state of PSN—which was described last October by the head of Palo Alto’s Office of Human Services as “a real time of paralysis”—reflects the faltering state of the city’s entire change agenda. The project is currently leaderless, having lost a second director in the past 13 months. Infighting has been a problem, according to an insider, and egos have repeatedly made progress difficult. PSN is now considering adoption of an alternate framework altogether. Dauber believes that the general state of inaction is the result of knee-jerk defensiveness on the part of the school district and some of PSN’s members. The earnest search for answers to a problem that nobody truly understands is manifesting as something much more pernicious: the shifting of blame.
While Dauber has made himself a gadfly for institutional change, Gunn sophomore Martha Cabot is focused on grassroots activism. Five years before that Monday morning in November when her teacher stood up to read the letter announcing Cam’s death, while still a middle school student, Martha had heard about the first string of suicides: four Gunn students, one recent grad, and one averted attempt—all in front of the train by East Meadow. Gunn was “the suicide high school,” she remembers, and she was afraid to go there: “I remember thinking, ‘Is this going to happen to me?’”
Like so many Gunn kids on the day of Cam’s death, Martha was too distraught to stay at school. The scene was awful: wailing kids running out of classrooms; boys rocking with their heads in their hands; students staring at the ground in the eerily silent courtyard. Martha and her friend Olivia spent the day drinking tea and kicking around ideas. Later, in her bedroom, Martha stared into her computer and recorded a three-minute video lambasting her high school’s extreme achievement culture. “The amount of stress on a student is ridiculous,” she said. “Seven AP classes should not be a social norm. I’m trying to raise awareness, mostly for the parents: Calm down.”
On campus and around town, Martha became “the girl in the YouTube video.” Among the first of the clip’s now 78,225 viewers was retired Gunn English teacher Marc Vincenti, an absentminded Eeyore type with such devotion to Gunn kids that he recently arranged for a plane to fly over the school dragging a “We Love You, Gunn” banner. At the time he came across the video, he was developing a six-point plan to foster a healthier environment at Gunn—“a distillation of everything that I know about what causes stress” informed by his 15 years at the school and his experiences during the 2009–10 cluster. Intrigued by Martha’s video outburst, he invited her to coffee, found her instincts simpatico, and partnered with her to launch a campaign christened Save the 2008 (the number refers to the combined total of Gunn students and teachers prior to Harry’s death). The plan advocates better communication about workloads between teachers and students; reduced class sizes; mandatory conferences with families whose kids are considering multiple AP courses; a crackdown on the morale-killing cheating culture; and, most controversially, a ban on cell phone use at school.
Explaining his support of the phone ban, Vincenti points out that “Gunn kids are suffering from profound isolation and loneliness.” His young ally agrees: “Kids are living their whole life in this tiny little box,” Martha says, referring to their near-ubiquitous smartphones. “I think that’s where a lot of the depression comes from. There is no real social connection anymore.” The blowback from classmates, however, has been swift. After a unanimous vote (36 assenting, 1 abstaining), the editors of Gunn’s newspaper, the Oracle, published a stinging takedown of Save the 2008, charging that it “misperceives the causes for student stress as purely academic” and “fails to propose changes that address the mental health issues that cause suicide.”
All three of the girls I meet at Starbucks are Oracle editors. They respect their classmate’s effort, says Lisa Hao. “It’s just that it’s focusing on the wrong problem. Cell phones are just a fact of life. If we don’t have our phones, we feel very lost and cut off. This would increase stress. Save the 2008 focused on saying that the problem here is just—well, not just, but mainly—our school, where all the stress and the depression comes from.”
This push-pull is a bite-size encapsulation of the skirmishes currently consuming all of Palo Alto. There aren’t enough fingers in Silicon Valley to point at all the people, norms, and institutions that may or may not be responsible. “The parents blame the schools. The schools blame the parents. And when they are together, they blame the universities,” says Marin psychologist Madeline Levine, author of a best selling book about the afflictions of affluent youth, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. Communities like Palo Alto, she says, may tout their Hallmark-ready battle cry of “We’re all in this together,” but all too often, there is little coming together on anything. “Where are the parents?” Levine rants. “How do they tolerate four hours of homework? Since when are kids making multiple trips to the ER? It starts to be a mass delusion. That’s what this feels like to me. What’s that book where all the girls become hysterical—The Crucible? That is what this feels like to me.”
Kathleen Blanchard, the mother of Jean-Paul, who died in 2009, has some simple advice for parents: “Talk less. Listen more. Listen deeply.” She’s speaking at a community event to an auditorium full of parents who are wondering what, if any, signals she saw in her son. “He sent out signs to people by phone and online,” she says. “He even let people know that he intended to take his life. But they didn’t understand.” Later I ask Blanchard what “listening deeply” means, exactly. “It’s like a song—you don’t just listen to the first note and then you’re done,” she says. “You have to listen to enough to hear the tune, and then to feel if it touches you in some way.”
The problem is that Palo Alto, in my experience, is a community with something of a tin ear, many denizens seemingly hearing only what confirms their preexisting worldview. Some of that tone deafness is understandable, given the complexity of the issues besetting the town. But some of it may be due to a general muzzling of suicide-related speech. The back stories of many of the 2009–10 suicides have long been shrouded in secrecy, leaving kids and parents speculating and rumor-mongering. The Stanford Psychiatry Department embarked on a “psychological autopsy” of the cluster, but no report was ever publicly released. In any case, Blanchard is dismissive of the study’s value: “There are many more [teens] who are not doing well,” she says. “Researching only kids who have passed away—it’s usefulness is so limited.”
Often it seems as if that de facto gag order from 2009 is still in effect. Even the kids speak in euphemisms, as if they’ve signed some town pact: During a “Listening to Youth Voices” panel in March, they referred to the suicides as “the recent events.” Some experts object to this use of abstruse terminology, which they believe reflects a damaging community-wide repression. “This is exactly the time to call it suicide and nothing else,” says Levine. “It couldn’t be clearer that there’s a crisis around kids being able to manage their feelings.”
Indeed, Palo Alto’s avoidance of the word “suicide” is “very much exemplary of how we deal with problems here,” says Anna Barbier. “It’s like the chalk. No one addressed it. They just washed it down.” She’s referring to a series of chalk memorials that were drawn by students all over the Gunn campus after Cam’s death. Rather than leaving them up as a reminder of (or, school officials feared, an homage to) suicide’s lasting effects, the administration unceremoniously hosed them away within hours. The students were left feeling wronged, their voices and feelings silenced. In April, their fury at being ignored boiled over again in the form of a Tumblr blog called My Voice Matters, where nearly 200 students posted portraits of themselves with their hands blocking their mouth.
Even the Palo Alto Weekly, the city newspaper, tacitly cooperates in the hush-up. Its message boards, where locals wrestle with every wrinkle of the crisis, are regularly scrubbed by forum moderators for language or messages “that focus on blame or responsibility.” The paper’s publisher, Bill Johnson, implores readers “to support our kids by not speculating, placing blame, or advocating specific ‘solutions’ in the direct aftermath of a suicide.” This position makes some in the community apoplectic. “The irony,” one commenter vents, is that “in one breath we are exhorting our kids to communicate more, and in the next we are demanding that a safe, anonymous forum that kids use be shut down.”
Yet despite such careful collective management of the message, much of what is being declared publicly—by school officials, community leaders, and crisis specialists—is rife with contradictions. Superintendent McGee, who arrived in 2014 after heading math and science academies in Princeton, New Jersey, and Aurora, Illinois, still opens board meetings with a celebration of the month’s big achievers—announcing the three winners of the annual C-Span national video documentary competition, say, or touting the four district finalists of the Future Business Leaders of America competition. Meanwhile, principal Herrmann, presenting her three-year accreditation plan to the board, lists her top priority as “expanding the cultural definition of success beyond traditional metrics.”
In an email to faculty, McGee dispenses with school stress as a factor in the suicides. “While some in the community are quick to blame academic stress as a causal factor,” he writes, “it has not been a contributing factor to recent deaths.” On a January 29 episode of KQED’s Forum, he reiterated the point: “To assume that academic stress causes suicide is just…frankly, that’s just not true.” But many students, who know full well how all-consuming their academic workload can become, find his certainty preposterous. Lauren Saal is one of them: “The statements they send out: ‘He was having problems at home, he was depressed by himself. It could never have anything to do with Gunn.’”
Blanchard, a corporate attorney who became a visible activist after losing her son, also decries the district’s stance. “This is Palo Alto Unified, supposedly among the greatest learning institutions,” she says, “and yet they are reluctant to look inside, grow—that is, learn.” Martha Cabot agrees that there is little will for reinvention. “A lot of times, I think nobody wants to change anything. My sister was here in ’09, and I didn’t see the school board changing then, and I don’t see it now.”
Stanford’s Joshi, who consults with the district, offers a measured defense. “This stuff is going to take time,” he says. “They’ve taken more steps this year than were taken in the last five.” In any case, he adds, the students themselves have been the primary driver of progress: “There are way more kids getting help for other kids than I’ve seen in my 16 years.”
Indeed, club leaders and class officers at Gunn frequently take the mic at board meetings, pleading for the criticism of their school to stop. Yes, stress is a problem, they emphatically argue, but it is not the problem. And yet, even as they protest, red flags turn up everywhere. “The majority of my closest friends admit to depression and self-harm,” said sophomore class president Chloe Sorenson at one meeting. While the community dialogue circles dizzyingly around homework, zero periods, bell schedules, and cell phones, one senses that the underlying issues are still getting dangerously short shrift.
On March 9, the suicide crisis took a turn that deflected the focus away from Gunn. At 6:25 a.m., Paly sophomore Qingyao Zhu—a soccer team member who went by his middle name, Byron—stepped in front of a northbound express Caltrain. That afternoon, Paly senior Andrew Lu wedged open a new angle on the crisis, composing a blog post featuring a Venn diagram of three concentric circles. The largest he labeled “Palo Alto,” the second “Male.” In the center circle was the word “Asian.” “It seems,” he wrote, “that the demographic most at risk are Asian (Chinese) males in high school (hey, that’s what I am!).” It was an unmissable observation: Zhu’s suicide was the third in a row by an Asian male.
For a moment, the Gunn–turned–Palo Alto problem became an Asian problem. But chestnut-haired Paly junior Carolyn Walworth, her school’s student rep on the district board, quickly forestalled any temptation to render the suicides an ethnic issue. On Palo Alto Weekly’s website, she posted a chilling diatribe titled “The Sorrows of Young Palo Altons” in which she lamented the entire student body’s response to the crisis. “We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages genuine learning,” she wrote. “We lack sincere passion. We are sick….”
The self-criticism in the treatise was, in Levine’s view, a healthy step forward. She says that she fears for this generation of kids, “who don’t come out and say ‘Screw you.’ Where’s the rebellion? These kids have no sense that they could change something.” But more and more, students are stepping up to challenge the status quo. Carolyn and Martha have both done so. And, quite eloquently, so has Gunn senior Jessica Luo, who, in a letter to her ninth-grade self written for a youth forum, admonishes the younger Jessica: “The ‘culture’ and the ‘system’ are not some monster looming above Gunn and issuing commands. The ‘system’ is made up of your actions and the actions of people around you.”
“Something’s only going to change,” concurs Gunn junior Hayley Krolik, “if 75 percent of us start saying to people around us, ‘Oh, you got the A, but did you enjoy the project?’ And frowning on people who just do things because it will get them someplace.”
Jessica sees the magnitude of the problem facing her peers—and advocates for a wholesale revision of the student-school compact. “We aim our arrows at false targets,” she writes. “We shoot at AP classes while the real enemy lurks in an unspoken assumption: that people who take the harder classes are better. That’s because it’s easier to think of culture as a tumor that can be attacked, to throw policy changes like block schedules and homework restrictions at the tumor in hopes of shrinking it. But the tumor just comes back—because the disease is somewhere else.”
Jessica implores her younger self to stop, to think, and—as Kathleen Blanchard advised in the aftermath of her own son’s suicide—to listen deeply. “Notice the air you breathe,” she writes. “Notice the people you’re helping or harming. Know your enemy—know that it does not live in the problems that look clear-cut. It lives in the shady assumptions beneath.”
Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco