Franklin James Cook

Palo Alto Volunteers Act Boldly against Teen Suicides

In Intervention, Prevention on December 2, 2009 at 10:54 am

Caroline Kent, 18, places a flower on a fence near a train crossing where four teens have died of suicide. (Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Winston Churchill said, “It is better to do something than to do nothing while waiting to do everything”: With that in mind, I would like to salute a group of community members who are standing watch in Palo Alto, Calif.

Following the suicides of four students from a high school in Palo Alto in less than six months at the same train crossing, residents of the city have formed a volunteer group to patrol the crossing and prevent anyone form dying there.

There is no study showing that what they’re doing will prevent suicide (and I suspect there never will be such a study because this is an isolated incident and there are too many variables involved). For all we know, the added publicity they’re stirring up may be harmful in some way (but I doubt that could be substantiated by research, either).

And we certainly don’t know if they’re going to be successful at stopping this particular cluster of suicides that is tragically occurring at Henry Gunn High School.

Here is what we do know: Four children from the community these volunteers call home died by suicide one right after the other using the same means in the same place, and people said, “That’s not going to happen again here if there’s something I can do to stop it.” And then they did something to stop it.

According to a recent story on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “Twice each hour, the same routine takes place at a busy railroad crossing that runs through a residential Palo Alto neighborhood.”

First the warning bell sounds, as the crossing gates lower to block access to the tracks. Twenty feet away, parents huddled along a chain-link fence freeze, midsentence, and look down the tracks toward the approaching headlights. They watch as the massive silver commuter train bears down and then hurtles through the crossing. And then, just like that, the train is gone. The gates go up again, faces relax, and the adults resume their quiet conversations.

“We’re out here to show the community and the kids that we care about them and that we want the misuse of the tracks to stop,” said Caroline Camhy. The mother of two small children, Camhy started the Track Watch days after the last suicide occurred at this spot a month ago. As school and city officials agonized and conferred, she and other volunteers felt compelled to act.

“We want the deaths to stop, and we want people to know that if they just open their hearts and look around them, they’ll find people who care,” said Camhy. She added, “We’re not the only ones.”

A few weeks ago in my post about blue lights at train stations as a preventative measure against suicide, I was critical of officials doing “something (whether or not it might be effective) because they had to do something,” and that might seem to contradict what I’m applauding in the case of the Track Watchers. But here’s the difference: We know that removing access to lethal means is generally a very effective intervention to keep people safe who are having thoughts of suicide, but we really know nothing about the effect of blue lights on people who are at imminent risk of killing themselves.

Even so, I worry about how Track Watch might be dramatizing the rash of suicides, about whether the volunteers are properly trained and if they are able to take action that is safe and effective should they encounter a determined suicidal person. There is much more that needs to happen than a group of volunteers standing guard at a railroad crossing.

But for a community to commit itself to stop suicide — to literally put themselves between suicidal people and danger — that boldness and determination deserves praise and support. And it suggests that such a commitment is a good starting place for a community to decide “to do everything” it can do to stop suicide, not just students’ deaths at one train crossing but suicide by people of all ages throughout the community now and in the future.

[Editor’s note: The Los Angeles Times story linked to above describes another response to the Palo Alto deaths that bears mentioning, for it focuses on building resiliency by promoting a sense of hopefulness among students at the high school. For more information, please see the “Henry M. Gunn Gives Me Hope” blog.]

[The abridged URL for this post is .]

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  1. Brian Bennion Taylor, 19, a 2008 graduate of Gunn High School died by suicide on Friday, Jan. 22, “about 150 yards north of the Meadow Drive crossing, where four other young persons have died since last May, three of them Gunn students and one an incoming Gunn student,” according to a “Palo Alto Online” news story. The “San Jose Mercury News” reported that the teen died “500 yards north of the Meadow crossing,” which was guarded by a private security agency. “It isn’t clear how the teen reached the tracks,” and he “was too far [away] for the security guard at Meadow Drive to see,” according to the Mercury News report. At the time, several volunteers from Track Watch were monitoring the Charleston Road crossing, south of Meadow, the report says. FJC

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