March 3, 2017

Dear PAUSD community,

This morning the Santa Clara County Public Health Department (SCCPHD) published the final report of the Epi-Aid Investigation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It was around this time last year when a team of scientists and researchers from both organizations conducted the field visit of this “Epi-Aid” investigation of youth suicide in Santa Clara County.  The researchers collected existing information and data and met with representatives of local community organizations about existing suicide prevention programs and activities.  PAUSD teachers, school counselors, school psychologists, mental health therapists, site and district administrators, Board members, and PTA parent representatives were engaged in this process in order to provide the researchers diverse views and expertise.  The final report, with a cover letter from Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County Health Officer and Public Health Director, was released this morning and is available on the SCCPHD website.

The purpose of the Epi-Aid was to understand characteristics and trends of fatal and non-fatal suicidal behavior among youth in Santa Clara County, including Palo Alto.  The report indicates that youth suicide has increased in Santa Clara County since 2003 mirroring trends in California and the country.  Specifically, from 2003 to 2014, the suicide rate for 10 to 24 year olds in Santa Clara County was 5.4 per 100,000, comparable to the California suicide rate of 5.3 per 100,000. The suicide rate for youth nationwide was higher than the county and state rate.  However, within Santa Clara County, the City of Palo Alto had the highest suicide rate for 10 to 24 year olds (14.1 per 100,000), followed by the City of Morgan Hill (12.7 per 100,000). Additionally, findings indicate that almost all youth deaths by suicide had precipitating factors, including recent crises and/or a current mental health condition.

While this information is difficult to comprehend, our Palo Alto community has long recognized the need to address suicide as a collective effort that involves all stakeholders. Indeed, PAUSD collaborates with many organizations and professionals including Project Safety Net (PSN), the City of Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Police Department (PAPD), Santa Clara County Public Health Department (SCCPHD), mental health experts, and parent, student, and community groups to leverage resources and efforts that safeguard our students and support their families.

These findings highlight the importance of ongoing and comprehensive suicide prevention and youth well-being efforts.  Some of the efforts that PAUSD has implemented include:

Prevention and Intervention Strategies    

PAUSD has implemented several professional learning opportunities to raise awareness of and skills in suicide prevention. The district uses an online training tool, Promoting Emotional Wellness for PK-12 Students, in which PAUSD teachers across the district participate. At the secondary level, crisis teams are participating in the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills (ASIST) training.  ASIST is a two-day interactive workshop that teaches participants to recognize risk behaviors for suicide and plan for safety.  Both programs reflect best practices. Additionally, we are partnering with Crisis Text Line to provide students with a 24/7 crisis support line.

Maximizing Student Engagement and Connectedness

The district has launched several important initiatives to support student engagement and attendance. Wellness Centers offer a wide range of support services to students in a safe, confidential, non-judgmental space and are in operation at both high schools.  Wellness Centers encourage students to feel comfortable in asking for help via visits to the center, but also promote wellness in classrooms and common areas. Through our wellness efforts, we are collecting information on services and outcomes to improve the operations of the centers and improve services to students. We are also focused on attendance as we know that coming to school every day serves as a protective factor that encourages student engagement, inclusion, and overall well-being. The district also is engaged in the development of a comprehensive social emotional learning initiative which we believe will help us to balance student learning with important life skills such as: decision making, empathy and self regulation.  Combined, these initiatives reflect a multi-faceted approach to suicide prevention and student wellness.

Safe and Welcoming Learning Environment for All Students

The district continues to focus on efforts that promote safety and inclusion in all PAUSD campuses. In addition to bullying prevention and gender identity policies in place to protect student rights, the district will implement a new Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum.  SEL curricula have been shown to help create positive learning environments by strengthening students’ ability to recognize their own thoughts and feelings, empathize with others, and balance academic learning with emotional intelligence.

Supporting Students and Their Families at Home

To support parents, the district added parenting classes in various languages on topics such as mental health, communication skills, and substance abuse.  We also administered parent and teacher surveys to better understand student experiences and student wellness.

Safe Reporting and Messaging

Research shows that how we speak, report, and message about suicide has an impact on individuals who are at risk, can influence public perception, and correct misperceptions and myths. As a school district, we have worked very closely with our high school journalism advisers and student-journalists in helping train our students on research-based safe reporting practices. The same safe-reporting practices are shared with local and national news media outlets who request to interview PAUSD staff on this topic.  Additionally, key PAUSD administrators have also participated in safe messaging training.

While PAUSD was noted in the report to be providing a wide range of student services, 60% of the programs and initiatives in Santa Clara County were implemented by PAUSD, we also recognize that there are areas in which we need to deepen our efforts.  We will be reviewing in great detail to better understand and prioritize efforts.

The Epi-Aid findings and recommendations offer valuable information and data to help guide next steps for our Palo Alto community. The report affirms our school district’s current efforts, validates available data, and offers important recommendations to help us persist as a community to address suicide and youth well-being. It provides critical findings that help inform our decisions and help improve the safety and well-being of our PAUSD students, and any Palo Alto youth, experiencing a mental health condition or crisis.  It also shows that individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and government organizations, as well as the news media, have a role to play in reducing stigma and preventing suicide in our community.

While this report provides valuable information about suicide behaviors in our community, there are questions the Epi-Aid does not answer and cannot answer because suicide is such a complex topic.  That said, we do know that suicide can be prevented and individuals  with suicidal thoughts and feelings can be helped.  Being vigilant for common warning signs, including change in behavior or mood, or statements about wanting to die.  It is important to know that people who have struggled with thoughts of suicide, and even those who have attempted suicide, can and do recover and go on to lead full and active lives. I encourage you to visit the PSN website or the PAUSD Department of Student Services webpage on our website to learn more about the resources available for suicide prevention. The resources on both of these websites are available to help us learn more about mental health and offer valuable support services.

With student well-being and safety at the center of our work and alongside key partners across the Palo Alto community, we look forward to using this report to guide our next steps in this ongoing work.  With these findings now in front of us, we can focus on more targeted efforts for all PAUSD students.

I hope that you will take the time to read the full report and continue to partner with us in our efforts to care for our PAUSD students.

Glenn “Max” McGee
Superintendent