California Educator

JUNE 2010

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Page 11 of 39

Counselors increase coping assistance after tragedies Four students at Gunn High School in Palo Alto committed suicide on the train tracks in the community within the past year. Eight to 10 possible suicide attempts were prevented by po- lice and others in the same location during this period. The “suicide cluster” has devastated stu- dents, staff and parents in the Gunn High School community. Staff have been working hard to provide new services — as well as increasing awareness of existing services — to prevent such tragedies in the future. Staff also brought in resiliency expert Kenneth Gins- burg as a guest speaker. (See Q&A, facing page.) The counseling department, whose members belong to the Palo Alto Education Association, has been instrumental in responding to the needs of grieving students, par- ents, staff and community mem- bers during these difficult times, and recently shared their perspec- tive during a roundtable discussion. It was the first time they have spo- ken publicly about what has happened and the prevention measures they have undertaken, de- spite nationwide media attention focused on the school and requests from Dr. Phil and other talk show hosts for interviews. Much of the problem, counselors say, re- than with previous generations, and can be at- tributed to several factors, they say. “When problems arise, parents insist on speak- ing with teachers and counselors themselves, rath- er than letting their teens work out the problem,” relates guidance counselor Jovi Dewett. “The mantra is that kids need to learn how to handle things,” says guidance counselor Lin- da Kirsch. It has not been uncommon for parents at the school to fly into crisis mode if their child receives a B instead of an A, and to beg the teacher to change it to an A so it won’t hurt the student’s chances of being ac- cepted into a top university. Some stu- dents have even been told that their parents won’t pay for their college ed- ucation unless they are accepted at Harvard or Yale. “Many times, students shy away Bill Christensen Palo Alto Education Association from a more difficult class,” says Dewett. “When that happens, stu- dents become very fearful of taking on challenges because they don’t know what the outcome will be.” When students are afraid to take risks, they volves around students’ inability to cope with disappointment and setbacks. This appears to be more prevalent with the younger generation BELOW: Palo Alto Education Association members Jovi Johnston-Dewett and Lisa Kaye, guidance coun- selors at Gunn High School. begin to lack confidence. And when they lack confidence, they lose their ability to cope with life’s setbacks. Many students, they say, can’t talk to their parents about this and ultimately be- come depressed. “Unfortunately, our students are not learn- ing the natural process for problem-solving in life,” says guidance counselor Pat Conway. Counselors have been communicating with parents about these issues and have also held Parent Education Nights. Counselors commu- nicate that the best college match for their child may not be the most prestigious one. And they are asking parents in no uncertain terms to stop “rescuing” their children at every opportunity so that students can learn how to take responsi- bility for their actions and make decisions. The school’s website has posted listings of re- sources for emotional support that are available 24 hours a day in the community, including counsel- ing services, a suicide hotline, and a hotline for gay and lesbian youth. For students requiring imme- diate counseling, the school has increased its ties to outside mental health as well. Guidance counselor Bill Christensen says 12 California Educator | JUNE 2010 ABOVE: Guidance counselor Pat Conway at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. counselors are accessible to students, and that the “intensity of their needs” has increased. With an open-door policy before school, at lunch and after school, students are encouraged to talk with adults if they have any concerns about their peers. Students are also encouraged to talk to peer counselors, and as part of a grass- roots campaign are wearing shirts that say “Talk to Me.” Training has been offered so that stu- dents will know how to recognize — and deal with — suicidal thoughts and feelings in them- selves and others. “We want to shatter the idea that it’s okay to keep silent if someone has questions or con- cerns about someone else,” says guidance coun- selor Lisa Kaye. “We are beginning to break the silence and help people communicate and come forward. The walls are coming down. Kids are coming in and expressing lots of concerns.” The presentation by Kenneth Ginsburg was very beneficial, says Christensen, for putting things into perspective — especially when it comes to defining what is or is not a crisis. The pediatrician told the crowd that part of being resilient is determining what’s really worth stressing over. “It was an amazing event,” says Kirsch. “We had parents, students and people from churches in the area attend. We have wonderful students that attend this school, and we must do every- thing we can to help them thrive.”

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