Teen Train Suicide Cluster Shakes Affluent California Town

PHOTO The Caltrain is shown.ABC News
The Caltrain is shown.

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 Parents Worried Their Teens Might Be Next

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.

Not only do the actual suicides of some teens encourage others who may already be thinking about it, she said, some studies have suggested that intense media coverage spurs others.

"It's like drugs," she said. "You pass around drugs and that encourages other kids to do it."

But authorities also have to be careful not to keep it so close to the vest that no information gets out.

"People do need to know what's going on," she said.

Kaslow said warning signs can include depression, giving away possessions, deterioration in both academics and social activities, general disinterest and substance abuse. Some teens, she said, will even go as far as to send out a text message or an e-mail to a friend to say goodbye.

"Often what happens is teens feel like things aren't going to get any better and no one understands them," she said. "There's so much much emotion."

Suicide by train is not very common among teenagers, she said. But it serves its purpose for kids who are serious about taking their own lives.

"A train is violent. There's no question about it," she said. "It works."

Kaslow said she was, coincidentally, in Palo Alto two weeks ago for an unrelated talk on depressed teenagers when -- not knowing about the prior suicides -- she mentioned leaping in front a train.

She was then stunned to learn about what had happened there in the spring and summer.

"Parents are extremely affected by this right now and they need help, too," she said of Palo Alto. "How do you know your kid isn't going to be next?"