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Death on the Tracks -- Teen Suicides in Palo Alto

YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia, Audio // News Report, Donny Lumpkins Posted: Sep 04, 2009

Editor's Note: Over the past four months, three young people have committed suicide on the Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto. YO! headed out to Palo Alto to talk to young people about the suicides and to see why these young people may have chosen to end their lives. Donny Lumpkins is a content producer and Malcolm Marshall is a producer for YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It was eerie. Very eerie to be standing there at the Caltrans tracks in Palo Alto where three different young people had taken their lives in four months. Stuck in the fence bordering the tracks, were dozens of flowers, a T-shirt from a summer camp and, on the sidewalk, a Rubiks cube.

Its hard to say the exact emotion that was running through my body until the bells began to ring and that little striped arm began to come down. The train was coming.

There is no way to explain suicide. To speculate is a purely idle act. But standing there, waiting for the rush and loud chugging of the train, I tried to put myself in the mindset of these young people. All of us, Im sure, have at one point or another thought about killing ourselves. Maybe even some of us have gone as far as fantasizing about how we would take our own lives. But for most of us, suicide is just one of many bad thoughts that run through our heads on a daily basis.

But standing there, as the train barreled forward, getting closer and closer to the intersection, all I could feel in my heart was fear and sadness. It took four seconds for the train to completely pass by. Those four seconds have taken 10 lives this year on the Caltrans tracks three of whom were young people from Palo Alto, who ranged in age from 13-17. Two of the kids went to local Gunn High School. YO!Radio went down to Gunn to ask the youth about how they felt things were going after the recent tragedies.

The mood is depressing and the classes are kind of hard, one Gunn student told me.

When I asked if they talked about the suicides at the school, she said they do but they talk amongst themselves. They dont really announce it, she says. [The school] has all these papers about suicide, like if you need help or if you have a friend who needs help, but unfortunately its not helping.

She told me kids do ask for help in ways that are comfortable to them, like the Internet resources, but no one takes these cries seriously. The same kids that have been threatening to take their lives have been saying it for years.

She definitely thinks the impact of the deaths is weighing down on people in the school. The teachers look older, more serious, she said. It seemed to have taken a toll on her as well. It was only the second day of school and she was already considering leaving Gunn for another school, one where she had more friends. As far as I know, there is no suiciding over there, she said.

One young man I talked to had the exact opposite to say about the school.

I dont think the majority of people are depressed, at least amongst my friends, he continued. But for the kids that have done that stuff, thats what everybody else thought, too. There is no overall mood. The trend that I see is that now one or two people did it, now people are more down to do it.

The students speculation about causes ranged from racism to family background, school difficulty and depression, while the news has called it a suicide trend. One young man with his shorts slung low and his hat to the side said in a very angry voice that these young people were retarded. Why else would someone want to kill themselves? he said walking away.

I think its natural to want to blame something or someone, to speculate and look for a definite reason someone takes their lives. But for anyone who has lost someone to suicide or who finds themselves contemplating it, its not as simple as all that. What I found out from a lot of people we talked to at the high school is that more than anything, the kids at the school wanted to distance themselves from the deaths. A number of kids we talked to started by saying, I dont know very much, or Well, I didnt know them. As if to be saying, its not my fault. Im not depressed.

One of the theories for suicides that come in groups is it gets in the air like a virus and travels from person to person. What most of the kids wanted us to know is they did not have this virus.

The future at Gunn is uncertain. There are plenty of papers and phone numbers floating around the school to help the kids who might be thinking about hurting themselves. But the thoughts of suicide are with them. Im sure its there in the backs of the minds of the teachers and students lives have been lost. Cops patrol the school and the train tracks. Kids are encouraged to talk to their parents and their teachers. Im sure there are whispers in the hallways and in the lunchrooms. Rumors, morbid little legends being born from this tragedy. There are no reasons, just memories, flowers in a fence, a T-shirt blowing in the wind, the aftermath of a life taken in four seconds that will last much longer.

Related Articles:

Unassuming Faces of High School Violence

Asian Americans' Rising Suicide Rates -- Three Students Take their Lives

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