At the Palo Alto school district's request, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has agreed to conduct an in-depth epidemiology study of the community's teen suicide clusters, Superintendent Max McGee said Tuesday.
The district has been working for several months to engage the CDC with the support of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, which formally filed the request for the study on behalf of the district. Public health authorities must invite the CDC to assist in an investigation within their jurisdiction.
These epidemiology studies, called an "Epi-Aid," are "investigations of serious and urgent public health problems in response to formal request for rapid assistance from states, federal agencies, international organizations, and ministries of health from other countries," a CDC report states. The CDC has conducted Epi-Aids on everything from suicide clusters and Ebola to community emergency preparedness.
Epi-Aids are short-term investigations designed to address emergencies, said Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department's health officer and public health director. Cody is also a parent in the district. Cody is working with the CDC to develop core objectives for the study, which she said will likely include comparing Palo Alto to nearby cities and understanding if there are obvious risk factors and/or protective factors associated with the community's suicide clusters. The school district and other community stakeholders like youth suicide-prevention collaborative Project Safety Net and Stanford University will also be involved in drafting objectives, McGee said.
The CDC has conducted this kind of investigation in other communities that experienced youth suicide clusters, including Fairfax, Virginia. In November 2014, the CDC analyzed behaviors and risk factors associated with suicides among youth ages 10 to 24 in Fairfax County Public Schools.
Investigators produced a 200-plus page final report after visiting Fairfax, conducting interviews and focus groups, examining health and school data, reviewing news articles related to youth suicide in the area, and meeting with community partners.
"Although the community has previously dedicated extensive resources to suicide prevention activities, concern about the effectiveness were raised in the community given suicides continue to occur," the report reads. "The community had been unable to identify epidemiological factors contributing to the suicide risk or the unmet needs that must be addressed by preventive actions.
"Consequently, the Fairfax County Health Department and the Virginia Department of Health requested the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) urgent assistance in investigating youth suicide and making recommendations for a public health response to prevent additional suicides among Fairfax County youth."
McGee said the district is eager for the CDC's expertise to address what he called a "public health threat" in Palo Alto.
"The more we've learned about suicide clusters, they really are contagions," he said. "One of the greatest risk factors in teen suicide is having a suicide that one begins another. That coupled with the 100-percent deadly means in your community, it's a threat."
McGee said the investigation should be conducted fairly quickly, and an executive summary will be issued within a few weeks of a CDC team visiting Palo Alto. A full, formal report would be issued after several months, he said.
McGee will provide an update on the district's work with the CDC at Tuesday's school board meeting.
In other business Tuesday, the board will have further discussion and board members hope, more back-and-forth dialogue with members of the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee.
Two subcommittees, one focused on the elementary schools and the other on the secondary level, presented preliminary research, findings and proposals to the board in October. At both meetings, the board asked questions and gave comments that the subcommittees responded to after rather than during the meetings. (The board's questions and the subcommittees' answers are included in this week's board packet.)
The elementary subcommittee preliminarily recommended that the district does not need to open a 13th elementary school, stating that enrollment at that level is stable and not growing.
Several members of the subgroup who disagree prepared a "minority report" detailing their reasoning for why a new elementary site is necessary. Other recommendations related to ideal school size, addressing overflow, the potential creation new choice programs or moving of existing ones, among others.
The hottest ticket out of the secondary subcommittee is a proposal that the district open a new, innovative middle and high school at the Cubberley Community Center site.
However, the group is recommending a "both, and" approach that if the district goes down the path of opening a new alternative school, that it not leave the existing middle and high schools as is. The subcommittee recommended expanding "core" and "house" programs at the existing secondary schools. In such programs, cohorts of students move through several years of school together with the same teachers, a model that increases feelings of connectedness and student engagement.
The entire enrollment committee is expected to present a final report with recommendations to the board in December. The group also plans to hold a town hall forum this month to collect community input.
The board will also hear the final fiscal report for a 2010 parcel tax measure; an annual report on the Strong Schools Bond, which has funded major construction projects in the district since it was approved in 2008; a new gender-identity policy that protects the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students; and a possible process change for the board's review policy committee.
The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.