Anderson Co. Middle School bans fictional teen suicide book from curriculum; school psychologists' group has concerns about book

Anderson County Middle School will no longer use a fictional book on teenage suicide for classroom instruction, citing a controversial Netflix series that is based on the book as a contributor to this decision, Ben Carlson reports for The Anderson News.

“The series played a factor in the decision to no longer use the book,” Supt. Sheila Mitchell told Carlson. “Also, the manner in which the book was beginning to be used for fall 2016 was not the original intent, so the principal informed the teacher to find other resources to support the concept.”

Principal Jenna Rose told Carlson that portions of the book, 13 Reasons Why, had been approved for use in a middle-school enrichment class during the 2016 spring semester to support a concept in standards. The book was not being used in any of the elementary or high schools.

The book "follows a fictional character named Hannah Baker who leaves behind 13 cassette tapes that explain why she committed suicide, and how 13 different people or situations contributed to it," Carlson writes. Netflix made the book into a 13-episode original miniseries that mental-health experts have criticized for many reasons, including concerns that it will romanticize the act of suicide.

Corey Sayre, a history and economics teacher at the high school, said he watched the series along with his wife, a counselor at a nearby school district. He told Carlson that the series reinforces two problems in preventing youth suicide: the main character didn't want to go to an adult, and the counselors were portrayed in an unrealistic way that reinforces the belief that kids can't trust adults.

"I don’t want kids to think that adults can’t be trusted," Sayre said. He added, "Understanding where your child’s mental health is just as important or maybe more important than knowing where their physical health is. At this age they are developing thoughts and stuff and we just have so little time with them compared to their friends or pop culture. Knowing where they are mentally and emotionally is really important.”

Carlson reports that school districts across the country have also banned the book from classrooms. Other schools have banned discussions about the miniseries.

The Kentucky Department of Education issued a warnings after the Netflix series was released that referenced comments 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 organization said. “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”

The association listed a series of concerns, including:
  • The graphic depiction of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and suicide can be very triggering, especially for anyone who is struggling or has struggled in the past with any of these things.
  • The show offers an over-simplified view of suicide by failing to mention mental illness.
  • There are little to no help-seeking behaviors shown by the characters. Adults are portrayed as dismissive, distracted, and unhelpful, which is a dangerous message to send to viewers.
  • Suicide contagion is also a concern since young people are more likely to attempt or die by suicide themselves after experiencing a suicide death of someone close to them.
Jefferson County Public Schools also sent a resource letter to thousands of parents in April to warn them about the miniseries and offered detailed guidance on how to talk to their children about it. It also offered a list of other resources, including: 13 Reasons Why Talking Points, Preventing Youth Suicide Brief Facts (also available in Spanish) and Preventing Youth Suicide: Tips or Parents and Educators.

The education department says suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth and young adults in Kentucky. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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