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Palo Alto School District Calls in the CDC to Study Its Suicide Cluster

The agency will try to shed light on what the superintendent calls a "public health threat."


It's been more than a year since four Palo Alto high school students took their own lives within six months of one another. Though the community has struggled to unravel the causes of the suicide cluster, meaningful answers elude the town, as reporter Diana Kapp detailed in a feature for our June issue. And now the Palo Alto Unified School District has taken a new step: calling in a government agency. At the request of the district, along with the Santa Clara County Public Heath Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will send a team of researchers to study the problem.

The effort, which will end with an epidemiological report likely to number in the hundreds of pages, will try to single out suicide risk factors particular to Palo Alto. It will also seek to identify strengths and areas of resilience. The 2014–15 suicides, involving students from both Gunn High School and Palo Alto High School, follow another cluster that took place at Gunn during the 2009–10 term. (A suicide cluster is a group of three or more suicides that occur close in time or geographic proximity.) Palo Alto's suicide rate is four to five times the national average.

Kapp’s feature described the academic pressure cooker that students at elite schools such as Gunn and Palo Alto High find themselves in, though the current superintendent, Max McGee, did not consider school stress a factor in the suicides—a claim that several students Kapp interviewed found fault with. 

McGee announced the CDC’s forthcoming study today, Palo Alto Weekly reports, saying that he’s eager for the CDC to address what he called a “public health threat.” 

The CDC undertook a similar study in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2014, producing a report in excess of 200 pages. The CDC's study of Palo Alto will get under way fairly quickly, according to the Weekly, and the center will release an executive summary within a few weeks of the team's visit to Palo Alto. The full report will take several months to complete.

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