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San Francisco Bay Area community news

As city mourns teen’s suicide, others call for bridge suicide barrier

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
December 2, 2005

Students, teachers and family packed Carlmont High School’s Little Theater yesterday for a lunchtime ceremony to celebrate the life of Carlmont senior John William Skinner.

The event made it clear just how many lives the 17-year-old touched, including friends, teachers, classmates, family and supporters from across the Peninsula. Skinner was found dead Tuesday on the rocks near the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, where he appears to have jumped, according to the California Highway Patrol.

“It was wonderful to see the tremendous outpouring of community support,” said Mark Olbert, president of the San Carlos School Board. “It’s sad that a young person with all that talent and energy and brains and potential died.”

Shortly before his death, Skinner sent cell-phone text messages to a number of his friends, telling them goodbye and saying they could have some of his belongings, including his guitar and photographs, according to classmate Nicole Giron. More than one said that Skinner told them he had “found the meaning of life.”

“He was an amazing kid — that’s the tragedy of it for all of us,” said Linda Stevenin, communications director for High Tech High Bayshore, whose son was friends with Skinner. “He was a sweet kid, and very smart.”

The teen is survived by his parents, David and Lucia, his brother, Joe, a San Carlos Charter Learning School student, and his sister, Caroline, a Carlmont graduate. Funeral services have not yet been announced, but the family plans to bury him in his homeland, Guatemala, according to Carlmont Principal Andrea Jenoff.

Skinner was one of the first students to attend the Charter Learning Center, starting in third grade and continuing through eighth grade before starting at Carlmont. He was a math and science buff, as well as a musician and soccer player, and in recent years was designing a computer game with some friends, according to Stevenin.

He was highly academic and founded a peace-based club at Carlmont called the Doves, Jenoff said.

While the adults in his life admired Stevenin, his peers relied on him for support. “He always made people laugh, and he was always there if you needed him,” Giron said.

“He was the main one we would go to when we needed help,” his friend Richard Jackson told the Daily News Wednesday.

As friends and family continue to mourn, Skinner’s death brings home the ongoing debate over building a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. While many argue that a barrier would mar the aesthetics of the landmark, local mental-health workers say it’s long overdue.

Earlier this year, the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California, representing 1,200 psychiatrists, convinced the bridge district board to embark on a $2 million study of a barrier; so far, $1.8 million has been raised.

Skinner was the twentieth person to jump from the bridge this year and the sixth under the age of 25 to do so, according to Mel Blaustein, president of the foundation. Eighty-seven percent of people who commit suicide by jumping from the bridge are Bay Area residents.

Bridge jumpers “tend to be impulsive,” Blaustein said. “They’re looking for a quick way out, but if you can prevent that, they’re usually happy to be alive.”

A recent study found that among 515 people who were pulled from the bridge during a serious attempt to jump, 94 percent did not subsequently commit suicide, according to foundation consultant Paul Muller.

“It’s been obvious in the psychiatric community for a long time that barriers are needed,” Muller said. “These deaths can be prevented.”

Teen suicides can inspire copycats
In the wake of a teen’s death, particularly from suicide, friends and classmates are more likely to become suicidal themselves, according to Michelle Joyce, manager of the San Mateo Crisis Center.

The crisis center is staffed by a number of teenage volunteers who counsel peers dealing with depression, suicidal thoughts and tough times, Joyce said. Some of those counselors will visit Carlmont High School next week to talk about warning signs, such as drastic changes in behavior, losing interest in hobbies, giving away prized possessions or increasing use of drugs and alcohol.

Counselors will also encourage frank dialogue about suicide. “A lot of times people shy away from the issue. We train our people to not be afraid to say, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?'” Joyce said.

The center offers a variety of resources for teens and families, including:
* A 24-hour hotline at (650) 579-0350
* An online chat Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m., at http://www.onyourmind.net
* Counseling for parents, with information at http://www.yfes.org

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Written by Beth Winegarner

December 2, 2005 at 10:02 PM

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