"13 Reasons Why" In The Modern Classroom 13 reasons why.png


Rape, domestic violence, substance abuse, bullying, homelessness, apathetic school counselors, and brutal suicide. These subjects are just the tip of the iceberg into the life of adolescence as depicted in Netflix’s new controversial series, “13 Reasons Why.” Simply uttering these “contraband” words in an educational setting will send chills up any educator’s back, for fear of crossing ethical boundaries, and will simultaneously spark enthusiastic uproar among students. This series is based off of Jay Asher’s young adult novel 13 Reasons Why which was published in 2007. This gripping series revolves around Hannah Baker, the narrator, who takes her own life and leaves behind thirteen tapes in which each expose a specific person, and a correlating painful event, and their relation to her suicide. As each internal storyline unfolds, the audience becomes more engrossed in the tangled narrative as Hannah Baker recalls exposes her past.
Throughout the history of television, dramas that are rooted in the intricacies of the high school experience are incredibly popular due to their universal relatability. However, the modern generation has shifted from the 1980’s “Saved By The Bell” experience to one that is obsessed with death, lies, and fantasy: “Pretty Little Liars,” “The Carrie Diaries,” “Teen Wolf,” and “The Vampire Diaries” are just a few examples of this shift from an authentic high school experience to one that is drenched in werewolves, vampires, sex, and ghosts. While these popular adolescent television dramas capture the attention of the modern generation, “13 Reasons presents a highly authentic portrayal, whether through true-to-life dialogue or the way cyberbullying is shown as a fact of life for teens today” (Highfill, 2017). This honest portrayal of modern teens, and their struggles, resulted in a binge-watching wave that overtook the millennial generation.
The executive producers of the Netflix series, Selena Gomez and her mother, hoped to shed light, and spark healthy conversations, on the uprising issue of teen suicide and self-harm due to a variety of millennial issues (Rochlin, 2017). In an interview with Brian Yorkey, the playwright, and Selena Gomez, an executive producer of the show, Yorkey explains that “This is a show that [adolescents] need. We all believe it will save lives – because the book has” (Rochlin, 2017). However, the series is receiving a heavy amount of criticism due to the aforementioned themes it uncovers. Critics are fearful that the themes of suicide and death are glorified and will trigger students to believe that suicide is an inevitable fate, rather than a decision. Supporter of the series, Dr. Bickmore, explains that the theme of suicide is one that has been indoctrinated in our literary canon through pieces such as Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Bickmore goes on to explain that society should "reframe [their] view of what "13 Reasons Why" is. It is a tragedy. It is in the genre of tragedy, just as the plays and stories I just described. We do not consider the canonical texts or films as glamorous stories of suicides because that is not what the stories are about. Neither is "13 Reasons Why." The issues that surfaced from the release of "13 Reasons Why" are not solely applicable to the student body. School administration, parents, and counselors alike are all concerned about how to start healthy, pro-active discussions with children on how to deal with these real issues in today's society.

Trends & Issues

While “13 Reasons Why” may be seen as an issue in education today because of its shocking popularity among adolescents, the issues that the series bring to light have been trending in our educational system, and society, for far longer than the release date of “13 Reasons Why.” According to data collected from a 2015 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third highest cause of death for adolescents 10-14 years of age and it is the second highest cause of death for adolescents 15-34 years of age. This results in over 440,000 deaths per year due to suicide which can be calculated to one suicide every thirteen minutes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017). Furthermore, a “new study of 32 children’s hospitals across the country” has shown that “admissions for suicidal behavior and serious self-harm among 5-to-17 year olds [has] more than doubled between 2008 and 2015” (Schrobsdorff, 2008). These statistics have been rising before Jay Asher published his novels and far before "13 Reasons Why" was aired on Netflix in 2017, thus showing that this trend of heightening suicide rates is not in direct correlation of the series itself. Nonetheless, the rise of suicide and self-harm in modern society’s adolescents is alarming and it is clear that this issue has been on the rise for quite some time. This could be one, of many, reasons that the series, “13 Reasons Why,” has created a cult following in the adolescent generation. In addition, these staggering statistics make it clear that it is only natural for school administration and parents to be wary of the issues revealed in the series. The issues that the series focuses on do not solely affect adolescents, these issues are applicable to school administration, teachers, parents, and counselors alike as they grapple with appropriate measures to take to face these issues with students in a healthy, objective way.


One of the overarching issues that has been highlighted by concerned parents and school administration is the grotesque and realistic portrayal of scenes including rape, suicide, domestic abuse, and drug abuse. Jay Asher, author of the young adult novel 13 Reasons Why, explains the necessity for these scenes: “These things happen, and to give respect to the people they do happen to, it felt wrong to hold back. It needs to be uncomfortable to read or watch. We’re already good at avoiding uncomfortable subjects, and that needs to change” (Smith, 2017). Asher’s words align with the executive producer’s message in turning his novel into a Netflix series for adolescents. Both believe that the issues highlighted in this film should be talked about in society and serve as a catapult for change (Rochlin, 2017). However, the portrayal of painful events has led school administrations, parents, and counselors alike “expressing grave concerns…claiming that [the show] downplays the issue of suicide and even glamorizes it in a way that could be very dangerous” (Highfill, 2017). Many critics of the series are fearful that the graphic portrayal of these authentic moments will blur the line of film and reality for some students and create an allusion that suicide is inevitable, rather than a decision (Kimble, 2017). Mary Hepburn (2001), author of “Violence in Audio-Visual Media: How Educators Can Respond” explains that it is not merely the violence in media that leads to concern but rather it is the “lack of interaction with family members or peers who provide mediating influences” (pg. 3). This mediating is crucial for school administration, school counselors, and parents alike to give students struggling with these issues a safe place to confront them in a healthy way.
Furthermore, “13 Reasons Why” gives an unidealized version of adult interaction in struggling students’ lives. When the narrator of the series, Hannah Baker, explains her predicaments prior to her suicide to the school counselor, he does not act. In the same fashion, her communications teacher receives an alarming anonymous note and she, too, does not act. Lastly, the parents in the series are flat characters who are simply blind to the cries of help from their children, and do not act. While this characterization of adults is not true for all schools, it could be read as a dramatization of what students perceive. In an announcement released by the National Association of School Psychologists (2017), they encourage educators to take the time to “reinforce that school-employed mental health professionals are available to help [and to] emphasize that the behavior of the second counselor in the series is understood by virtually all school-employed mental health professionals as inappropriate.” The article goes on to give additional guidance to educators (such as warning signs), peers, and parents to assist students in confronting these issues in a safe, healthy place. And the National Association of School Psychologists is not alone in this guidance; there are numerous states that sent out letters of caution to parents through their Department of Education (Kimble, 2017).
While the series can be potentially dangerous to students who are susceptible to suicidal tendencies, the “series does accurately convey…that there is no single cause of suicide” (National Association of School Psychologists, 2017). The series, with the thirteen tapes and subsequently thirteen intertwining narratives, exposes a variety of concerns and issues in modern day society. Adolescents are exposed a variety of causes of depression and the importance of what silence to these issues results in. The series does not simply point a finger at one issue, or weigh one issue heavier than the other; the series does not just blame the “bullies” but also confronts those who witnessed wrongdoings and stayed silent as well. Bickmore offers a solution to the helping students' process the variety of issues and causes of depression revealed in "13 Reasons Why" by explaining that teachers need to work in close contact with school counselors to analyze and have healthy conversations about these issues. Bickmore writes that, "using critical analysis skills, we can see that Hannah Baker is a flawed character. That suicide was a poor choice. By having guidance counselors as co-teahcers of the novel, we can have real conversations about the vents depicted, which include drug use, alcohol, rumors, social media, bullying, depression, rape, and yes...suicide." Furthermore, the graphic scenes in the series are placed strategically to illustrate to the audience that these issues are real and not romanticized. Yorkey, the show’s director, explains that “the more traumatic events in the show” are present because “we felt a real responsibility not to look away from them…so where we were bold, we were only bold because the truth is powerful and sometimes difficult” (2017). The series was poised to shed light on difficult, and sometimes taboo, issues in today’s modern generation. Whether one is a critic or a supporter of the series, the series has undeniably started conversations about these issues both at home and in school. School administration, school counselors, parents, and students can now bind together to confront these issues with healthy conversations that support the students’ need to process these difficult themes.

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Annotated Bibliography

Bickmore, S. (2017, May 04). Focusing on the Wrong Things – A Defense of Jay Asher’s/Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why [Web log post]. Retrieved May 30, 2017, from http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/focusing-on-the-wrong-things-a-defense-of-jay-ashersnetflixs-13-reasons-why
This blog is written by Steven Bickmore, a professor of English Education at UNLV, and explains in detail the potential benefits of teaching "13 Reasons Why" as well as debunks some of the criticism the series has received.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). [Graphic illustration of leading causes of death] 10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, United States – 2014. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/images/lc-charts/leading_causes_of_death_age_group_2014_1050w760h.gif
This graph breaks down the ten leading causes of death by age group in the United States.

Hepburn, M. A., & ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, B. I. (2001). Violence in Audio-Visual Media: How Educators Can Respond. ERIC Digest.
Hepburn's article explores the effects of violence in television and video games in the newer generation and provides instructional activities to ensure healthy communication and mediation from adolescents.

Highfill, S. (2017). 13 REASONS WHY: INSIDE THE MOST DARING SHOW ON TELEVISION. (cover story). Entertainment Weekly, (1466), 24-30.
Highfill's article gives an unbiased approach to the series' popularity, including reasons for its success and its cause for parental anxiety.

Kimble, M. (2017, April 26). Why Schools Are Warning Parents About Netflix's Series 13 Reasons Why. People . Retrieved May 17, 2017, from http://people.com/human-interest/schools-sending-letters-to-parents-about-13-reasons-why/
Kimble's article gives an overview of the issues associated with the series from the point of view of parents and school administration.

Rochlin, M. (2017, March 22). Selena Gomez (and Others) on Adapting 'Thirteen Reasons Why' on Netflix. New York Times. Retrieved May 17, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/arts/television/selena-gomez-thirteen-reasons-why-netflix.html?_r=0
Rochlin's piece includes an interview with the executive producers of the show, as well as the playwright, and gives insight on their motivations behind creating the series.

Schrobsdorff, S. (2017, May 11). What It Feels Like When All Your Parental Nightmares Are Rolled Into One TV Series. Time. Retrieved May 17, 2017, from http://time.com/4775444/13-reasons-why-parental-nightmares/
Schrobsdorff's article focuses on the issues the series creates for parents and highlights concerns from critics such as the portrayal of depression in the series.

"13 Reasons Why" Netflix Series: Considerations for Educators . (2017). National Association of School Psychologists . Retrieved May 17, 2017, from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/preventing-youth-suicide/13-reasons-why-netflix-series-considerations-for-educators.
The article published by the National Association of School Psychologists explains the triggers in the series for students who are suffering from depression and/or suicidal tendencies. The article goes on to give advice to both parents and educators on how to notice a child in need and the appropriate measures to take to ensure students know the resources available to them.