Dissents From Palo Alto: The Parents

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Hanna explains the research behind her December cover story

Earlier we ran many critical emails from current and recent students of Palo Alto’s two high schools, which served as the focal point of Hanna’s new piece on teen suicide. Now from a “concerned parent” in the community:

While this article was better than most, it still suffers from the same
sensationalist problem as all the others:

- “The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools”—WRONG!
- “The Silicon Valley Suicides”—WRONG!
- “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?”—Partially Wrong.

This is NOT a Silicon Valley Problem, since it is not happening at any of the other private or public schools elsewhere in Silicon Valley
(including the even wealthier areas of Atherton, Los Altos Hills, or
Hillsborough). This is not even a problem of Palo Alto high schools, since it’s not happening at Palo Alto High School (only one of the suicides in the various clusters happened at Paly).

The various headlines should have, properly, read:
- “The Suicide Clusters at Gunn High School (in Palo Alto)”
- “The Gunn High School Suicides”
- “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves at Gunn High School in Palo Alto?”

It’s time for the articles to focus on Gunn so they have the motivation
to address the problem in a seriously introspective manner.

From a mother of two Gunn grads (’10 and ’14):

The article made me cry, several times. I felt so strongly that Hanna did not include the feelings of the parents and the community.

It is so painful to have to ask your children, “Did you hear about anything? Do you want to talk about what you heard? How do you feel about what happened?” over and over. It is so painful to realize that your child has to face their own mortality because they have known someone their own age who died. They cannot feel immortal, the way beautiful young people should feel, because they know that their friends die.

Overall, I feel Hanna did not get a handle on how hard this community has been trying. I feel a bit demonized, or at the very least that our community was depicted in a distinctly un-nuanced way.  

I also resent that everyone talks about Palo Alto as if we are all wealthy. I know I am in the top one percent globally, but I am living on a salary, struggling to make college payments, and even with financial aid and loans, I’m solidly middle class. From the point of view of a long-time resident, and with due caution that I do not sound too much like a crotchety old lady, Palo Alto was an awesome place to grow up. We were one of the first in the nation to recycle, I rode horses, there were orchards, there were coffee houses with live music, seven movie theaters, and about the same number of book stores.  It has changed a lot, but there are still many ordinary liberal, even hippy, middle-class, family-oriented people here.   

I wish the article had mentioned the good work of the Challenge Success team, which has reached out and formed a team at Gunn to create a more balanced academic life. They do great, hopeful work.

I also want to share the short film that one of of my kid’s classmates made (Gunn class of 2012, between the clusters). It’s called Tracks. [CB note: A Vimeo commenter says of the film: “vulnerable, beautiful, and disturbing. Haunting images, heartrending acting, and a beautiful story.”]

Another critical email from the community:

I am an Asian Indian parent and my two children graduated from Gunn recently.  As immigrant parents, we worked very very hard to give my children an education we did not have: an emphasis on the joy of learning (and less emphasis on grades and tests), creativity, balance between school and outside activities, and redefining what success means. We have been lifelong volunteers at PAUSD and I gave up a Silicon Valley career to be a full-time mom, to listen and support my children’s passion, to be there for them, and to help this community. I have lived in many communities, and I found this one in Palo Alto to be caring, honest, and open minded.

I knew some of the children who took their lives on the train track. I know some of the parents whose children suffered depression, acknowledged it and tried everything they could to find help. Every day I cross that train track and ask why. What could I have done? It is true of every parent here.

I agreed with some of the issues Hanna Rosin raised. But something she did not address: that one in seven kids between the ages of 13 and 18 in this country are depressed [CB note: Comparable stats here]. They don’t know how to get help and cannot afford help. There is a stigma about mental health, and our healthcare programs do not cover mental illness for the most part. The college admissions process and the high school structure is not conducive to the mental health needs of our young people. I am not convinced this is a Silicon Valley problem or a Palo Alto problem alone, or an Asian cultural problem or a problem with our medical establishment.

All I know is the factors for these suicides are complex and that this community is addressing it. We are not afraid to be judged and we are not stuck between fear and denial. We have not waited for Rosin’s article to spur discussions, soul searching, and to have so many conversations between so many different ethnic, economic groups here in Palo Alto. The city is not all rich, successful, Asian, white or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

I urge Rosin to write an article as a followup, after she do more investigating, more talking to more people from the various members of this community on what has been done and the honesty with which so many of us in Palo Alto are facing this issue, the programs that have been put in place, the love and support that this community has given to each other. The article failed miserably in this regard. And Rosin’s comment, “Our hope is that the story will spur a useful discussion, among educators, mental health experts, and teenagers,” was arrogant, ignorant, not well researched, offensive, an insult to this community, and clearly shows your knowledge of what this community is, as a judgmental outsider.

From a reader who isn’t as hard on Hanna:

I am a parent of two daughters, one who graduated from Gunn High School this year, the other a sophomore currently. I am also a member of the school’s schedule committee, which adopted its new block format to assure that student well-being is placed on a par with academics.

The Atlantic and Hanna Rosin deserve credit for taking on this topic with serious purpose, thorough research, and even a certain humility about definitive conclusions, as well as for making  the effort to add some “hard truths” to our understanding of tragedies that defy understanding. Yet it is unfortunate that the author of this extensive piece devoted barely a sentence or two to the adverse effects on students and parents of the overweening college admission industry, especially as Rosin correctly focuses on this issue and comments pointedly in her video interview [seen above].

In my own piece concerning the suicides published last June in The Huffington Post, I attempted to sum the matter up as follows:

Why colleges don’t make their admission standards more transparent is beyond reckoning, except to enable the reprehensible "selectivity" game. Collectively, they are willfully fostering undue stress with children as pawns, and should be ashamed of themselves. Annual disclosure of college admissions scoring templates and algorithms (which would not preclude exceptions) should be a requirement of law for Federal aid flow to any college. Establishing such a system would not be "too hard" for the colleges with Silicon Valley's help, given its leadership and expertise in big data analytics - some Stanford students are doing it already!

One more reader, who praises Hanna (as have many other parents via email):

For 15 years I taught English at Gunn High. In the classroom, along with my wonderful teenagers, I made it through 2009-2010, when six of their schoolmates were deciding to end their lives, and it turned me into a different (and better) teacher and changed me as a person forever.

For good journalism, one must be grateful, and that certainly applies here. Ms. Rosin’s piece is balanced, warm, thoughtful, graceful, humane. In her discussion of over-parenting, and in particular the insight that it doesn’t necessarily equate with feelings of closeness, I find Ms. Rosin right on target.  

I believe she’s rather shied away from some of the cruelties of this town, at least as I have witnessed them: parents wanting their injured children to go out on the athletic field, a mother wanting her mortally ill daughter to nevertheless go sit for the SAT, a girl ignored and weeping in her school’s Main Office, a coach telling his team that suicide is the act of a coward, students angry at a deceased classmate for “ruining my senior year.” But I’m not sure that the callousness here is any worse than in human life anywhere.

And in general, Ms. Rosin’s focus is much more on parenting than on the way we run our high schools—and I guess this is as it should be, since, when all’s said and done, our families are the most decisive influences in our lives.  

Gunn High has a current rate of cheating of 87 percent. Palo Alto High was recently discovered to have had a three-year, 20-student cheating ring that ushered at least some kids through the gates of prestigious colleges. Such massive academic fraud causes pervasive distrust and anxiety; the problem is of longstanding; our administrators, School Board, and parents collude in it by looking the other way. [CB note: More details on the cheating here.]

Previously, our high schools reported grades four times a year; now it is twelve—leaving teenagers no time to heal, breathe, recover from the hurt and emotional setbacks of adolescence.  And studies show that 65 percent of high-schoolers, even when it’s against school rules, are on their cellphones during class—distracted from their teachers, their classmates, their studies.

A Palo Alto grassroots campaign, called Save the 2,008 (named for the number of faculty and students remaining at Gunn High after last fall’s suicides) has marshaled 400 signed supporters—parents, students, teachers, Stanford professors, physicians, attorneys, engineers, scientists, LMFTs, psychologists, a chief health strategist from Google—in a plea to school officials to undo these toxic school conditions.

Journalists are some of my heroes. They’re fighting an uphill fight—against a decline in reading and decline of financial resources. And it’s hard to get into public schools to observe.  So I repeat: Ms. Rosin’s work is welcome and well-done.