Caltrain Suicide Leaves Palo Alto High School Grieving

School starts Tuesday

By Lori Preuitt
|  Monday, Aug 24, 2009  |  Updated 2:37 PM PDT
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Caltrain Suicide Leaves Palo Alto High School Grieving

A Caltrain struck and killed an incoming Gunn High School freshman Friday night.

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A weekend suicide in Palo Alto has sparked a new concern here in the Bay Area.   A 13-year-old girl who was supposed to start as a freshman at Gunn High School tomorrow stepped in front of a Caltrain Friday night.

Today is a teacher's work day at Gunn and her death is clearly on the minds of everyone at the school.

Since May, three young people have died on the train tracks in Palo Alto and a fourth student was saved from death at the last minute.

Police stepped up patrols in the area following Friday's death.

Palo Alto Police Sgt. Dan Ryan told the San Jose Mercury News the community is both upset and grieving.

"Clearly there seems to be a very disturbing trend that's gone on this year," Ryan told the paper.

The young girl was struck and killed by a train near Meadow Drive in Palo Alto Friday night.   The unidentified girl reportedly left behind a suicide note before she walked into the path of an oncoming train at 10:45 p.m.

  People stopped to let the train pass say they saw the child step onto the track, but could not get to her in time.   The train's operator also saw her and blew his whistle, but could not stop in time.

Caltrain officials said today that the best way to discourage teen  suicides on Caltrain tracks is to address mental health issues on a community level and tone down news coverage of the deaths of several young people at a Palo Alto crossing since May.
     
Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon said at a news conference Monday that the transit agency and its employees are "devastated" by each death, including that of a 13-year-old girl on Friday.

"The emphasis has to be attacking the larger issue," Simon said.

Simon also said Caltrain will do everything it can to prevent any additional deaths.

The agency is participating in a newly formed mental health task force in Palo Alto, he said. Caltrain also plans to spend $1 million on additional fencing, and is continuing training efforts for employees,  students and law enforcement, he said.

Simon said efforts like those are more effective than reactive measures such as surveillance cameras and police patrols.

Shashank Joshi, an assistant professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and education at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University said media coverage is a factor in the cluster of similar deaths.

You may remember last spring, two Gunn High School students died at the same crossing.

In May JP Blanchard, a junior at Gunn, walked in front of a Caltrain to his death.

A month later senior Sonya Raymakers also killed herself by standing in front of a train the week before she was supposed to graduate.  

A third student attempted to kill himself during the same time period, but was stopped by his mother and a driver who noticed a commotion on the tracks and stopped to help.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Department transit police are taking the lead on the latest investigation.

Link to Bay Area Suicide Help Lines

Various resources are available for Santa Clara County residents experiencing a crisis, including a 24-hour suicide hotline that offers  counseling over the phone. Many of the volunteers who staff the line have  survived a loved one's suicide, said Gabby Olivarez, a senior mental health  program specialist with the county and manager of the suicide prevention  program.

The county also runs a suicide survivors' group where residents who have lost loved ones meet and support one another.

Olivarez said a basic mental health education can help parents and others recognize warning signs of suicidal behavior.

Those include disengaging from friends, family and social  networks, losing interest in activities, and talk of suicidal thoughts.  However, other signs can be less clear, she said.

"Feeling depressed, lack of sleep, no energy, fatigue: those are really signs of depression that can be linked to suicide," she said.

Teens who are still developing a sense of self-awareness often don't recognize they have a problem, she said.

"Younger people are very impulsive and more likely to do something and not think about it," she said.

However Olivarez said that in her experience, "there is always some kind of sign."

The hotline, which can see up to 100 calls a day, especially  around the holidays, is taking many calls from people who have lost their  jobs and struggling with financial issues, she said.

The service is staffed 24 hours a day. Residents in the north county can call 650-494-8420, and residents in the south county can call 408-683-2482.

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