The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
A few students had gotten in early to take some photos dressed as Scooby-Doo characters, part of an annual volleyball-team tradition. Now one of them, Alyssa See-Tho, was waiting outside the choir room for first period to start. Slowly, classmates began to join her. Through the windows, they could spy the teachers packed in there. In the other classrooms of Henry M. Gunn High School, about 1,900 kids waited. After a few minutes the teachers filed out, each holding a sheet of paper, none talking. Alyssa took her seat inside. It was November 4, 2014, a few days after homecoming and maybe a month before college applications would start making everyone crazy. The teacher read a statement containing the words took his own life last night, and then a name, Cameron Lee. Alyssa’s first thought: Is there another Cameron Lee at our school?, because the one she knew was popular and athletic and seemingly unbothered by schoolwork, an avid practitioner of the annoying prank of turning people’s backpacks inside out.
That morning the school district’s superintendent, Glenn “Max” McGee, called Kim Diorio, the principal of the system’s other public high school, Palo Alto High, to warn her, “This is going to hit everyone really hard.” McGee was new to the district that year, but he’d known the history when he took the job. The 10-year suicide rate for the two high schools is between four and five times the national average. Starting in the spring of 2009 and stretching over nine months, three Gunn students, one incoming freshman, and one recent graduate had put themselves in front of an oncoming Caltrain. Another recent graduate had hung himself. While the intervening years had been quieter, they had not been comforting. School counselors remained “overwhelmed and overloaded” with an influx of kids considered high risk, says Roni Gillenson, who has helped oversee Gunn’s mental-health program since 2006. Twelve percent of Palo Alto high-school students surveyed in the 2013–14 school year reported having seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months.