Schools across the country, including at least two in the Tucson area, are urging parents to exercise caution if they allow their children to watch “13 Reasons Why,” a popular Netflix series about a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves behind audio tapes explaining how she got to that point.
In light of recent suicides in the Vail area, the school district there is taking extra precautions to make sure parents are aware of the issues surrounding the show.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and unfortunately suicides do occur with young people, and it’s a very difficult issue for all of us to deal with,” said Vail School District Superintendent Calvin Baker.
The district spoke with principals about the show and left it up to each school about whether to send information to parents.
Esmond Station K-8 and Corona Foothills Middle School sent emails to parents earlier this week.
“I decided to do that because I was familiar with the series,” said Corona Foothills Principal Margaret Steuer. “I felt like it was important for me to keep my parents informed and also I knew of some resources, including in terms of people at school, and I wanted to provide parents with those resources.”
Emails contained a link to specific talking points to guide family conversations about the series as well as suicide-prevention resources, hotline numbers and a reminder that school staff is available to assist students.
“Please be sure your student knows that there are staff at Corona Foothills who can help them if they, or someone they know, is hurting themselves or contemplating suicide,” the email reads.
Steuer said she received responses from parents thanking her for the concern and for keeping them in the loop.
“I got this email and I wasn’t shocked at all,” Stephanie Langston wrote in a Facebook forum. “My sixth-grader asked if he could watch it because people at school talk about it a lot. So, I watched it first. I told him no but asked if he knew what it was about. We had a discussion about suicide. It would be a good show for his age, if it weren’t for the graphic scenes.
“However, he told me that a lot of kids his age saw the show. I really hope the parents know and have talked to their children.”
The information sent is a “very fair and balanced look at the series,” said Baker. “It’s not, ‘Oh my goodness’ alarm ringing. It’s very fair and balanced and raised some questions and helps give adults some ideas in language on how to talk to their children about the topic.”
The show is rated TV-MA, which means it may be unsuitable for children under 17, and three episodes that contain explicit material have “viewer discretion advised” warnings.
The Vail School District is not recommending that students watch the series, but encourages parents to watch it themselves before allowing students to watch.
Tucson’s largest school district, Tucson Unified, has taken an internal approach.
Tammy Hille, coordinator of the district’s guidance and counseling department, sent a letter with information to school counselors about how to talk to students, parents and staff about the show.
“As this show sensationalizes suicide, it is important for parents and students to understand the reality of suicide, not what Hollywood portrays,” the letter reads.
The letter also included guidance specifically written around the series for educators from the National Association of School Psychologists.
“We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series,” the guidance reads. “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. ... While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital.”
The Sierra Vista Unified School District posted a detailed message on Facebook notifying parents about the show and weighed in on the series.
“There is no mention of behavioral health and treatment options, the notion of suicide is glamorized, there are no examples of help-seeking by the teens portrayed in the program and there are several scenes depicting serious trauma in which the teens do not seek help or resources, including rape, bullying, alcoholism and suicide,” the district post says. “And the graphic portrayal of the actual suicide was unnecessary and potentially harmful to young people facing challenges.”
The response to the Facebook post was mixed with some expressing appreciation for the heads-up and others arguing the district went a little overboard, saying the series doesn’t glamorize suicide, but portrays it accurately.
The Amphitheater, Flowing Wells, Sahuarita and Marana school districts have not issued any warnings about the show.
“In Marana we do have full-time, master’s-level school counselors in every school,” Crawley said. “And part of our ongoing curriculum does include suicide awareness and information we share with students and parents, as well as addressing other issues such as bullying, drugs and alcohol and how to make healthy choices. ... We are very much committed to emotional behavior and academic enrichment involving our students.”