2017-06-16 / Front Page

Series sparks dialogue in schools

TV show follows impact of teen’s suicide
By Stephanie Bertholdo


CAUTIONARY TALE—Local school districts have informed parents about concerns over the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which is about a teen girl’s suicide. This photo of a promo poster was taken at a May 24 parent workshop hosted by the Engaged Community Project of Westlake Village. 
STEPHANIE BERTHOLDO/Acorn Newspapers CAUTIONARY TALE—Local school districts have informed parents about concerns over the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which is about a teen girl’s suicide. This photo of a promo poster was taken at a May 24 parent workshop hosted by the Engaged Community Project of Westlake Village. STEPHANIE BERTHOLDO/Acorn Newspapers The popular Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” has school administrators, teachers and parents worried.

Why?

The story line includes rape, girl-on-girl bullying and other depictions of what goes on at many schools throughout the nation.

The show centers around a teenage girl’s suicide and the tapes she leaves behind for the people who played a role in her decision to end her life.

Some school officials fear that the show romanticizes suicide and sends a dangerous message to teens who are struggling with social and emotional issues either on campus or at home.

The series, which launched in April, has generated so much buzz that local school districts have sent letters advising parents about the show and have increased support services for students.

“Common Sense Media, a media guide for families, does not recommend this show for middle schoolers due to its graphic nature,” said Dan Stepenosky, Las Virgenes Unified School District superintendent, in a letter to parents in May.

“The difficult issues depicted in the series do happen in schools and communities,” Stepenosky said. “Children and teens who watch it may need supportive adults to engage in thoughtful conversations about the serious topics involved. They may have questions and painful feelings to express. We strongly encourage parents to check in with their children to see if they’re watching this show and help them process it.”

Tracyann Thomas, the parent of a Las Virgenes student, watched “13 Reasons” and discussed it with her son. The boy had heard about the show from friends, but his mom forbade him to watch it.

“It’s very intense,” Thomas said. “The suicide scene is especially difficult to watch. Even as an adult, it’s so much devastation to process.”

Thomas believes the show might have some educational value for parents, especially if they watch it with their children and talk about the issues that are dramatized in each episode.

“Also, it’s a good reminder that important conversations need to be had with their children, and keeping an open line of communication is so critical,” she said.

Stephanie Walker-Sean, a psychologist with Oak Park Unified School District, said the show’s subject was broached by a parent just before spring break.

“I was contacted by a parent of a student who had watched the series and had been negatively impacted,” Walker-Sean told the Acorn. “Because I was concerned about the impact upon even one student, I watched the full 13-episode show over spring break so I could return to work and ensure our district knew about it fully and so we could enact a plan of action.”

After the break, Walker-Sean met with counselors, administrators, campus supervisors and health clerks to alert them about the series and the effect it could have on a student who was already at risk.

The meetings resulted in the school district developing an online training course for teachers and staff on how to best respond to students.

“If our help saves the life of even one child, then efforts are imperative to be made,” Walker- Sean said. “The show depicts her death as a revenge suicide, and that is a dangerous message to be sent, especially to a fragile child.”

So far, Las Virgenes and Oak Park school districts have not had students approach a counselor about the show, but when the psychologist talked to students, she found that many across all grade levels—including elementary school—were watching it.

Due to its graphic elements, administrators agree that the series is not appropriate for elementary school children and is generally not recommended for middle school students.

Simi Valley Unified School District Superintendent Jason Peplinski also sent out a letter to parents last month and discussed the implications of the show with administrators and teachers.

“We have encouraged parents to exercise caution if they are allowing their students to view the series and have also encouraged them to watch it with their children,” Peplinski said.

Julie Kaufman, a mother of three children ages 16, 14 and 11, said that while her two sons were not interested in watching “13 Reasons,” her fifth-grade daughter was eager to see it.

“After some online research, I told her no,” Kaufman said. “She was mad, and when I looked at what she was seeing about it online, I could see why she was mad. (The producers) made some marketing choices that make it seem like it is good for tweens, when it really is not appropriate for them to watch.”

Anticipating the need to protect vulnerable children, Stepenosky said the district has increased its high school counseling outreach. As with many districts in the area, Las Virgenes offers a variety of anti-bullying programs, character-building sessions like the Dude Be Kind program and Buddy Benches that help lonely students make friends.

“We have just adopted a new course called Freshman Seminar, which will help ninth-graders navigate the complex world of high school and teenage years,” Stepenosky said. Topics include methods to deal with stress, and the course touches on mental health, nutrition, positive relationships and other issues, he said.

Carol Bjordahl, director of student services for the Pleasant Valley School District in Camarillo, said she is advising parents to preview the show before allowing a child—even a high school student—to watch it.

Bjordahl said that although the series doesn’t seem to have had a direct impact on PVSD students, the district had already been dealing with an increase in kids experiencing social and emotional crises.

The show, she said, may actually pale in comparison to the real-life stress students are experiencing. In her district, some families lost jobs during the financial crisis and never recovered. Children as young as 5 and 6 have been “self-harming,” she said. Like many school districts in the area, Pleasant Valley has offered increased counseling and support services for students.

The second season of “13 Reasons Why” is being produced and will be released next year.

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