Teenagers have tweeted more about the Netflix show "13 Reasons Why" – the 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 – than any other program this year. For educators, though, social media sharing has only intensified concerns.
Since "13 Reasons Why" debuted March 31, 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.
Because of 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," not view the series. Some teenagers and parents affected by mental illness have even petitioned Netflix to remove the series from the site.
Netflix responded by adding a new graphic-content warning before the series' first episode. 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. "I always believe talking about things is better than silence."
We reached out to educators to find out how the show was being discussed in real life – 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 work to incite unnecessary concern, as did "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "The Fault in Our Stars" and even "Harry Potter."
Ruby Alvarado Hernandez
Guidance counselor at a K-12 charter school in Phoenix
A graduate of the school where Hernandez works started a Change.org petition urging Netflix to remove "13 Reasons Why." Hernandez added her name to more than 2,300 signatures to help others, she said, become 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.' 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."
Principal at Highland Middle School in Highland, Ill.
Baer sent a letter to the parents of his school's 670 students about "13 Reasons Why," noting that it's an "intense" series that explores suicide, depression, bullying, drug/alcohol use and rape.
"I didn't paint '13 Reasons Why' in a good or bad light. I've had kids say they watched it with their parents, and that led to some good discussions about how to help people. I can see it being a lesson, if parents know the content and talk openly with their kids.
"At the middle-school level, we see kids who 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. That's why I sent that email out – to inform parents. ... I can sleep better at night."
Robert M. Avossa
Superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools in Palm Beach, Fla.
Before overseeing the 200,000 kids in Palm Beach County's 187 schools, Avossa was a superintendent in affluent Fulton County, Ga., where he witnessed a concentrated level of suicides. He consulted with Madeline Levine, author of "Price of Privilege," which explores psychological issues among teens from wealthy families.
"We've had a tightly clustered group of issues where (at least a dozen) students reported self-mutilation, self-cutting and suicidal ideations. Counselors asked those students, 'Where did you get this idea? What happened? We haven't seen you in the office before.' The thing the students had in common was they had been watching '13 Reasons Why.'
"My experience in Georgia taught me that I was obligated to tell the parents. These kids are way too young to be watching this series – and binge-watching it, which is even worse. 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.
VanNoord was flipping through Netflix when he found "13 Reasons Why." He started watching at 7 p.m. and finished the series at 5:30 a.m. He found the show compelling but problematic and wrote an op-ed about the show.
"There are positive messages out of the show: Don't be a bully. Reach out to those you feel are hurting. But there's also an 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 lay it at the feet of other people. Your voice can be heard in death when it's not heard in life. I wanted to write about whether or not those positives inadvertently overshadow the negatives.
"A colleague 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.'
"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 part, at the school where Deichler teaches.
"Because the book talks about bullying and trying to fit in, it felt like a very freshman book to me. 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, bullying and date rape if you have any concerns.' Only one parent responded.
"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, 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.
"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. 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 last year in Czajkowski's school district. So when parents voiced concern about "13 Reasons Why," she talked with mental health experts and wrote to parents "strongly advising" them not to let their children watch the show.
"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 and having no one to speak with about it. So I wanted to open a dialogue.
"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."
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 wrote 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. So we decided to host an event that any kid at the school could attend.
"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, 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 de-pression, I'll say, 'It's definitely not worth it. You shouldn't subject yourself to this.'"
Dr. Denise Herrmann
Principal at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto
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.
"I knew many students were going to binge-watch it – and that it would be quite the hot topic. 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 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. 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. It's not surprising that students might be finding comfort, almost, in it."