What is the greatest issue facing the Palo Alto Unified School District? Is it the weighted Grade Point Average debate? Maybe it’s the renaming of Jordan and Terman middle schools? Or is it the controversy surrounding the middle school sex education curriculum? If you based your decision on what the school board has been talking about lately, these would all be reasonable responses. But I remember just over two years ago, when the last student suicide cluster took place in Palo Alto, and that is not an issue that can be fixed in two years. The PAUSD Board of Eduation is not doing enough to reform our school system to develop an environment that is conducive to students’ mental health.
It would be one thing if this cluster were an isolated incident, but suicide has been a problem in our district since 2009, when the first cluster occurred. Suicide is not an issue that should ever be relevant in a school environment, and the fact that there have been two clusters within five years of each other is deplorable. It is an issue so bad that it caught national attention when The Atlantic published an article about the clusters. There has even been an epidemiological study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention providing incredibly useful statistics and information regarding the epidemic. Statistics that show that teen suicide rates in Palo Alto are more than four times the average for Santa Clara county, and yet the school board still seems more focused on whether we should rename our middle schools.
This is not to say that nothing is being done by the school board. The introduction of Wellness Centers at both Gunn High School and Paly is a step in the right direction. While the Wellness Centers help unify the health services available to high schoolers, it will take much more to fix what is a systemic issue — there has to be real, permenant change before the school board’s efforts will be finished. Something must be done to reduce student stress and help to mitigate the affect of the over-acheiving culture of Paly.
This mental health epidemic is especially concerning when the school board makes decisions like the one to implement weighted GPAs, a decision which incentivizes students to take more rigorous courses with the promise of a slightly improved standing in the college rat race. If the school board is truly concerned with the well-being of students, then it has to make decisions that prioritize mental health over the pressures of disgruntled parents who just want to make sure that their precious babies get into Harvard. School board members must remember that they are in a unique situation: the people that their decisions affect are not those who elected them.
The school board must not lose focus. Reform must continue until we begin to see statistical information showing a decrease in teen suicide rates in Palo Alto. The first step towards fixing this issue has to be the reaffirmation of PAUSD’s partnership with Adolescent Counseling Services, which is set to be replaced by Counseling and Support Services for Youth at the end of the school year. It is also necessary for the school board to reverse its implementation of weighted GPAs.
The school board cannot depend on other groups like Sources of Strength, an organization that looks to build resilience among high school students in the United States and Canada, to fix the problems our schools face, even if it is difficult or politically inconvenient to address them head-on. It is too easy for people to talk about reform right after a crisis and then immediately forget when another issue comes to light. And that’s not to say that other issues don’t deserve attention from the school board. But there should always be a “next thing” that the school board is doing to help improve student health, because there is nothing more important for a school than the well-being of its students.