The Palo Alto High School administration is reaching out to students and providing support services after the death of a Palo Alto Unified School District alumna over the weekend, says Principal Kim Diorio.
Diorio says that the administration worked quickly to follow standards, convene a crisis response team and decide how to inform students of the tragedy. The district has implemented numerous protocols aimed at responding to tragedy after previous suicide clusters involving district students occurred in 2009-2015.
District Supt. Max McGee sent a letter notifying parents of the incident on Saturday, though at the time, details surrounding the death were unknown.
On Monday morning, some teachers read aloud a message from the administration to their first period classes, informing students that Sarah Longyear, a 2014 graduate of Gunn High School, had died by suicide. The message also directed students to various mental health related resources. Additionally, Diorio sent teachers a link to a video that provides guidelines for discussing mental wellbeing with adolescents.
According to Diorio, administrators were unsure as to whether they wanted to prepare a standardized script for teachers to read off to students.
“We just thought, and given how connected our students are with Gunn, that we wanted to be on the same page as them,” Diorio said. “It’s that balance — we don’t want to ignore this, and act like it didn’t happen, and at the same time, we have to be careful about how we message it.”
Because the individual who died was an alumna rather than a current student, Diorio says district officials were more measured in their direct outreach to students.
“We wanted to see how yesterday would unfold, before checking in directly with kids,” Diorio said. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to come to us on their own, if they need support. When it was our own student, or when it was a current Gunn student, we were much more specific in identifying kids we wanted to check in with. We took it more case by case, instead of doing a universal check-in.”
Diorio says that she hopes the teachers who needed additional support talking to their classes could have received it.
“I think one thing maybe I would have done differently, if a teacher was in that situation, I would have seen if we could have partnered them with someone who could have been in the classroom and talked with the kids,” she said. “We didn’t have enough time to put that plan together.”
Above all, Diorio encourages students, parents and staff to be there for each other and be proactive in combating issues relating to mental health.
“It’s keeping those conversations about mental health going, talking about it, noticing when people might be struggling,” Diorio said.
The Santa Clara County Public Health Department is scheduled to release on May 4 the preliminary findings of its Epi-Aid project, an investigation aimed at combating student suicides which began in February.
A list of school and community resources is available on the Paly crisis resources page. If you need immediate assistance, the Santa Clara County Suicide and Crisis Hotline is available at 1-855-278-4204 at any time. These numbers are also available on the back of student ID cards. If you feel you or someone you know needs immediate support, please call 911.