‘13 Reasons Why’ is affecting America’s classrooms. Teachers tell us their stories
On Sunday, Netflix announced plans to make a second season of “13 Reasons Why,” the new and popular television series about a 17-year-old girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 audio tapes explaining what — and who — led her to do it.
For fans, many of whom read the Jay Asher novel on which it was based, more “13 Reasons” makes perfect sense; teenagers have tweeted more about the show than any other program this year. For educators, however, it only intensifies a variety of concerns.
Since “13 Reasons Why” debuted March 31, hundreds of school districts across the country have sent letters home advising parents that their kids may be watching a show that some mental health experts argue glamorizes suicide. Due to the graphic depictions of suicide, rape, bullying, slut shaming and drunk driving, the National Assn. of School Psychologists has recommended “that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation,” do not view the series. Some teenagers and parents affected by mental illness have gone as far as to petition Netflix to remove the series from the streaming site altogether.
Netflix, meanwhile, has responded by adding an additional graphic content warning before the series’ first episode. The streaming site has also pointed viewers to a website — 13reasonswhy.info — that offers crisis information. And its creator, Brian Yorkey, tread lightly when asked about the controversy: “I have tremendous respect for everyone’s point of view,” he told The Times recently. “I always believe talking about things is better than silence.”
We reached out to U.S. educators to get their thoughts. With so many teenagers creating memes and tweeting about the series, we wanted to find out how the show was actually being discussed IRL — in the classrooms and hallways of schools across America. Some feared that the show might inspire copycat suicides; others feel the show is just the latest YA to incite unnecessary concern, as did “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and even “Harry Potter.”
Note: Some sources asked that their employers not be named because their supervisors had not granted them permission to speak on behalf of the schools.
Guidance counselor at a K-12 charter school in Phoenix
Ruby Alvarado Hernandez
A graduate of the school where Hernandez works started a petition on Change.org urging Netflix to remove “13 Reasons Why” from its platform. Hernandez added her name to more than 2,300 signatures in order, she said, to help others to become more aware of the “potential repercussions” from the show.
“Students have been asking me, ‘Have you seen this?’ Some kids thought the premise was stupid, like, ‘That’s ridiculous. Why wouldn’t she have asked somebody for help? Why didn’t anyone help her?’ And then I heard others saying, ‘It was just so hard to see some of those things. It really affected me.’
“Now kids are joking about being really stressed about school, saying, ‘Miss, wait until you get my tape.’ Of course, we take that seriously. They’ll say ‘I’d never do that. I’m just kidding around,’ those type of things. But they have to recognize that there are kids who are in the middle of dealing with depression, and they have to be conscious with their words.
“So I’ll say, ‘Listen, I know you think everyone knows you’re joking, but that might be a trigger you’re setting off for someone else.’”
Principal at Highland Middle School in Highland, Ill.
In April, Baer sent a letter home to the parents of the 670 students who attend his school noting that many of the kids were watching “13 Reasons Why,” which he described as an “intense” series that explores suicide, depression, bullying, drug/alcohol use and rape. He also wrote that over the past three years, “more and more students are exhibiting signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.”
“I didn’t really paint ‘13 Reasons Why’ in a good light or a bad light. I’ve had some kids say they watched it with their parents, and that led to some good discussions about how to help people who are feeling that way. I can see it being a lesson, if parents know the content of it and talk openly with their kids.
“The target is high school, but it’s edgy, so middle schoolers want to watch it — and they don’t have the same maturity level. At the middle school level, we see kids that are exhibiting depression or suicidal tendencies. I’m old school. I wasn’t exposed to the same things that kids have access to with their phones. Most of the bullying or depression, in my day, came from kids saying things. Now it’s all through a text message with no feeling.
“I don’t want to be the principal that says, ‘Oh, they’re just trying to get attention,’ and they go home and do something. I would never be able to live with myself. That’s why I sent that email out — to inform parents. If you don’t care what your kids are watching, you can open this email and delete it. But I made the attempt to inform them about it, and I can sleep better at night.”
Superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools in Palm Beach, Fla.
Robert M. Avossa
Before he began overseeing the 200,000 kids who attend Palm Beach County’s 187 schools, Avossa was a superintendent in affluent Fulton County, Ga. During his tenure in Georgia, he witnessed a highly concentrated level of suicides and consulted with Madeline Levine, the author of “Price of Privilege,” which explores how teenagers from wealthy families may suffer from extreme psychological problems.
“We’ve had a very tightly clustered group of issues come up where [at least a dozen] students reported self-mutilation, self-cutting and suicidal ideations. The counselors asked those students, ‘Where did you get this idea from? What happened? We haven’t seen you in the office before.’ And the thing the students had in common was that they had been watching ‘13 Reasons Why.’
“My experience in Georgia taught me that I was obligated to tell the parents, ‘Hey, we’re seeing a spike in this.’ These kids are way too young to be watching this series — and binge watching it, which is even worse. A typical adult may be able to do that, because they’re able to understand that this is something they’re just watching on TV. But a 13-, 14-year-old kid just can’t process that. It’s rated MA, and we have young kids watching this — that’s really the concern here.
“The part that scared me was the whole revenge thing — ‘I’m gonna show you,’ and sort of glamorizing this idea that there’s revenge that takes place by giving these tapes out and making others feel bad about your demise.”
Seventh-grade literature and language arts teacher at Lake Zurich Middle School South in Lake Zurich, Ill.
On a recent Thursday night, VanNoord was flipping through Netflix when he saw a new show called “13 Reasons Why.” He started watching at 7 p.m. and quickly got sucked in; by 5:30 a.m., he’d finished the entire series. While he obviously found the show compelling, he also found it problematic, and wrote an op-ed about his issues with the show that was picked up by the Chicago Tribune.
“There are obviously positive messages that come out of the show: Don’t be a bully. Reach out to those you feel are hurting. But there’s also an inadvertent, unintended message: the potential positive outcomes of your suicide. You can make people who hurt you hurt. You can take the responsibility for your death and parse it out and lay it at the feet of other people. You can be memorialized. Your voice can be heard in death when it’s not heard in life. So I wanted to write about the question of whether or not those positives inadvertently overshadow the negatives.
“I was just talking to a colleague of mine today who teaches 8th grade. She overheard some students talking about my column. I could tell she was being coy, so I said, ‘They didn’t have super favorable things to say about it?’ She said, ‘No, they kind of disagree with you.’
“This is also last week’s news to them. All the adults are getting caught up and I think the kids see it as a bit of an overreaction, like, ‘Gee, guys, it’s a TV show.’
“In my writing class, I used my column to teach as a piece of writing — showing my original piece and then the edits it went through in the Tribune. We invited a counselor to sit in the classroom to make sure no one was triggered or wrestling with the material.
“It didn’t really generate a lot of discussion in the class. It kind of reminds me of the sex ed talk. ‘OK, gee, Dad.’ Eye roll. ‘I’m not gonna go out and get pregnant because I saw a movie!’”
Freshman/senior English teacher at Analy High School in Sebastopol
“13 Reasons Why” was filmed, in large part, at the school where Deichler teaches. Jay Asher came to speak to the student body and gave out hundreds of free books. As a result, Deichler decided to incorporate the book into her 9th grade curriculum last fall.
“Because the book talks about bullying and trying to fit in, it felt like a very freshman book to me. Early on, before we started reading it in class, I sent a letter to parents saying ‘I’m going to be teaching this book which deals with teen suicide, heavy bullying and date rape if you have any concerns.’ Only one parent responded. And before each new assignment, I’d tell the kids — ‘Just know, this chapter deals with rape,’ or whatever topic to prep them.
“So when the show came out, all the students wanted to watch it. I watched it, too, but after the first episode I couldn’t get through the rest of the series. They had altered characters so much that it didn’t feel like the same themes were being presented. We ended up watching the first episode in class to critique it, and a lot of my students who had read the book didn’t care for it. They said [protagonist] Hannah seemed meaner, like she blamed everyone else. Most of it was shot in our main building, so the kids were very excited, like, ‘Hey, I know that classroom or locker.’ They enjoyed that aspect of it.
“There have been some conversations with people in my department wondering if showing someone actually commit suicide will be a catalyst for this kind of thing happening among the students. As an English teacher, I have kids do creative writing every week, and after the show came out I had kids who created a few darker pieces. They’d say, ‘I just want you to know, I watched the show.’
“And I had to give those to a counselor. If the student has any sort of words that make it seem like there’s something better in death — like being at peace, or ‘I’ll be traveling beyond,’ then I know I have to give it to someone. But then the counselor talks to the kid and the kid doesn’t want to write things like that anymore. It’s really difficult, but it’s my obligation.”
Superintendent of Lexington Public Schools in Lexington, Mass.
There have been two student suicides in the past year in Czajkowski’s school district. So when local parents voiced concern to her about “13 Reasons Why,” she decided to consult with mental health experts about the series. Ultimately, she decided to write a letter to parents on May 1, “strongly advising” them not to let their children watch the show.
“I have Netflix, so it popped up on my screen. It was disturbing that there wasn’t a whole lot of support or resources surrounding the series. I think about the student who might be watching that up in their room on their iPad or Chromebook and feeling depressed and then having no one to speak with about it. So I wanted to open a dialogue around what is causing stress for kids.
“You had students talking about it and parents talking about it, so I think it was important for me to take a position. Other superintendents were doing the same. I’ve received positive feedback from parents thanking me for making them aware of the show. There have been mixed reactions from students. I think they try to avoid the topic with me, although I have had some say to me, ‘It’s not a big deal. It’s really kind of stupid.’ It’s been mixed, but in this day and age, we have to be proactive and take positions.”
English and psychology teacher at Plainwell High School in Plainwell, Mich.
Over spring break, Mielke and his wife watched “13 Reasons Why” and finished the series feeling unsettled. So he decided to write a blog post on WeAreTeachers, an online community for educators, encouraging fellow teachers to discuss the show with their students.
“A lot of kids who had seen it were really focusing on the positive message — ‘I realize that even the little things I do can affect people and I think I’m more conscious of my behavior now.’ But when I would follow up, asking them what they could do as a positive action, a lot of them said they weren’t sure and wish they knew. So we actually decided to host an event that any kid at the school could attend. We used the show as leverage, having kids share what was your takeaway from it, what impacted you, what do you think was missing, what would you do if you noticed someone was depressed.
“The thing, I think, that concerned us most from the series was that most kids are already relatively reluctant to share anything with adults. And the series made adults look oblivious, or antagonistic. So we shared as much information as we could, and said, ‘You don’t have to talk to a teacher. You can contact a peer. And these are the signs when immediate attention is needed and you should call the police.’
“The event was not that well-attended. It coincided with testing season. I’d polled my classes — I teach four — and about 90 out of 120 students had seen the show. That’s the double-edged sword — people are talking about it, so there’s curiosity. A lot of them have said to me, ‘I don’t know if I should watch it,’ and if I’m aware of their challenges or depression, I’ll say, ‘It’s definitely not worth it. You shouldn’t subject yourself to this. It’s not a good outlook.’”
Principal at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto
Dr. Denise Herrmann
Over the last seven years, there have been 10 teen suicides in Palo Alto — a rate four to five times higher than the national average. In 2015 alone, four students at Gunn took their lives — so when “13 Reasons Why” was released, Herrmann was prepared.
“The show aired right as we were heading out to our spring break, and I knew many of the students were going to binge-watch it — and that it would be quite the hot topic when they returned. So we did a good job of informing students before break that this was airing and that some of them who use counselors at school would be relying solely on parents during that time.
In general, our students really do not roll their eyes and say ‘it’s just a TV show’ when talking about mental health issues because we’re a school that has experienced suicide. We don’t take it lightly.
It is a television drama, so there are some parts that were inaccurate in terms of legally and socially how a school should respond — but there’s no judgment there, because every school is different in terms of how you respond to a tragedy.
Yes, we have had experience with this, but we weren’t reliving it. I would never endorse banning students from watching the show. We have been working very hard on trying to reduce the stigma of any kind of adolescent mental health issue. If we in any way say that the show is not OK to talk about, that might inadvertently be sending a message that it’s not OK to talk about feeling sad or suicide.
The timing of the release is very interesting because there’s a lot of stress right now. It came out right before students were receiving their college acceptance letters and doing AP testing, so there’s in general a heightened sense of anxiety on high school campuses across the nation. So it’s not surprising to me that students might be finding comfort, almost, in it.”
Read more about “13 Reasons Why”:
5:45 p.m.: This story was updated to add reaction from the principal of Henry M. Gunn High School.
The first version of this story was published at 9:30 a.m.
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