A cluster of violent teen suicides in an affluent California town has officials scrambling to figure out why four kids from the same high school took their own lives and how to prevent others from doing the same.
The death of a 16-year-old boy Monday night in Palo Alto was believed to be the fourth suicide of a Gunn High School student since May. In all four cases, the teenagers jumped into the path of an oncoming commuter train operated by Caltrain.
"Parents are eager for information," said Joan Baran, clinical services director of the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto. "I think parents are wanting to know what they can do."
Information about the teenagers and the particulars of their deaths are being closely guarded by school and police officials who fear a public spectacle will only encourage more unstable students to take their lives.
"It's very difficult and it's very sensitive," Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said today.
The four teens entered the tracks near the East Meadow Road crossing, she said, "which is not very far from Gunn."
The rash of suicides started May 5, when a 17-year-old male committed suicide at 8:20 a.m. during the morning commute. He was followed June 2 by a 17-year-old girl and again Aug. 21 by a 13-year-old girl who was to have been a freshman at Gunn this fall.
The fourth Gunn student death happened at 10:50 p.m. Monday and although his death has not been officially determined as a suicide, officials believe he willingly put himself in front of the train.
It was unclear whether any of the teens were connected.
Suicide by train is not a new phenomenon in general, Bartholomew said, though this is the largest cluster of teen suicides Caltrain has seen in recent memory. Until the recent suicides, the last teen suicide for Caltrain was a 17-year-old boy in Redwood City, Calif., in January 2008.
Caltrain, which serves communities in the San Francisco Bay Area peninsula, has a weekday ridership of 40,000. In 2008, Bartholomew said, 12 out of the 16 fatalities involving Caltrain were suicides.
Baran told ABCNews.com that Palo Alto set up a committee called HEARD, comprised of pediatricians, schools, police and community agencies after the first two suicides this year "to come up with a response to address this pattern."
Parents, she said, were scared. Free parent education classes on dealing with teenage stress were already in place before the suicides, Baran said, but officials saw renewed interest after word got out.
Gunn High School referred all questions to the Palo Alto Unified School District. A district spokeswoman said there would be no statement from either the school or the district because "it's just felt that's the best approach."
Palo Alto police did not return messages seeking comment about the suicides, but Sgt. Dan Ryan told the San Jose Mercury News that he knows of six to eight more that had been prevented.
"The research we're being told is that the more we talk about it and romanticize it, the easier it is that mentally ill or depressed people will make that leap," he told the newspaper. "We're taking a stand and not releasing more information."
Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist for the Department of Psychiatry and Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, said today that suicide clusters among teens are rare but not unheard of, accounting for about 1 to 5 percent of all teen suicides.