Palo Alto couple presses for ‘sense of urgency’ in relieving academic stress — (Palo Alto Weekly)

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Palo Alto Weekly

Personal tragedy created spark for ‘We Can Do Better Palo Alto’

It seemed to come like a shot from nowhere.

Ken and Michele Dauber, Palo Alto parents of five, called for “new leadership” in the Palo Alto Unified School District in a guest opinion column published in late February in the Palo Alto Weekly.

Since then the couple — she a Stanford law professor and he a Google software engineer with a PhD in sociology — have become outspoken regulars at Board of Education meetings and elsewhere, pleading for emergency action to address academic stress in Palo Alto’s two high schools.

“If I had hair, my hair would be on fire,” Ken Dauber said, referring to a string of Palo Alto student suicides in the past few years.

Added Michele: “In the midst of a real crisis, sometimes you have to deviate from ordinary practices.”

Impatient with established school-district protocols, the couple has argued aggressively — some would say abrasively — for a greater “sense of urgency” in revamping of district-wide homework and counseling policies.

They’ve launched an organization, “We Can Do Better Palo Alto,” that claims an active membership of 20 and an email list of 130.

This week the couple, along with four other members of the group, appeared before the Gunn High School Site Council, calling for replacing Gunn’s traditional counseling system with the “teacher advisory” system used at Palo Alto High School.

We Can Do Better will hold a public organizational meeting Tuesday, May 17, at 7 p.m. in Room A6 of Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road.

Although they don’t usually bring it up, Ken and Michele Dauber make no secret of the fact that they too have lost a child to suicide — their oldest daughter, Amanda.

The 25-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design — who completed high school at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, where the family used to live — died by suicide in June 2008. At the time, she had just mounted her first solo show at a Providence, R.I., art gallery.

Amanda was on medication and under psychiatric treatment for major depression at the time of her death.  Academic stress was not a factor, her parents said.

But they have been galvanized to action in Palo Alto by what they see as an incomplete response to the local tragedies — and district Superintendent Kevin Skelly’s statements that academic stress does not play a role in suicides.

Skelly has called it dangerous to suggest “that there’s a direct connection between the suicides and Gunn High School.

“I think it’s a dangerous place to go, and unfair to the school, the district, the students and faculty who have worked very hard to create an environment there,” he said in March.

The Daubers pointedly disagree.

“We know from the literature that academic stress can cause anxiety and depression, which in turn can cause suicidality,” Michele Dauber said.

“We have to act with real urgency to make reforms now.”

While supporting measures the district has taken so far, including screenings and suicide-prevention training, We Can Do Better advocates direct and focused attention on academic stress.

Group members praised the school board’s decision this week to shift the 2012-13 academic calendar to schedule first-semester finals before winter break, giving high school students an assignment-free vacation.

But there are “many other, higher-impact changes that we feel are more important to the social-emotional functioning of our students and to reducing stress,” such as attention to homework loads, block scheduling, later start times, advisory counseling and limits on test and “project stacking,” Michele Dauber said.

School board members have said they will take up many of those issues, which are summarized in the “supportive school environment” section P-8 of a Project Safety Net report issued last summer, at their board retreat in August. The issues could become district “focus goals” next year.

Kathy Sharp, a Gunn parent and member of the advocacy group, said it’s a “false choice” to think mitigating stress means sacrificing academic achievement.

“We believe students can feel connected, and we can have a school environment that reinforces that, without sacrificing academic performance,” said Sharp, the mother of a senior and a sophomore.

Outside of Gunn, We Can Do Better has attracted parents from Paly and the middle schools, but the Daubers say that, with kids in the schools, some are understandably cautious about speaking out.

The Daubers are not.

“It is terrifying, yet we must step up and lead,” Michele Dauber said.

“I know if it has not happened to you it may be hard to believe that anyone can be afflicted with depression. But the statistics show that as many as a third of adolescents suffer from depression.”

The Daubers are not currently Gunn parents but expect to be in the future. Two of their four other children — now in or graduated from college — went to Gunn; one went to a boarding school and the youngest is a fourth-grader at Barron Park Elementary School.

Since Amanda’s death, the couple has worked with Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda to address stress and establish mental health services at the school.

They also have come to know the parents of Palo Alto’s teen suicide victims, who have created their own kind of support network.

“Our family has struggled to press on in the face of our devastating loss,” Michele Dauber said.

“We are heartbroken every day and miss (Amanda) every day.

“I hope with all my heart that no family will have to suffer as we have and as these other families have.”