Schools warn parents about Netflix's '13 Reasons Why'

The show tells the story of a teen girl who commits suicide.

ByABC News
April 25, 2017, 3:48 PM

— -- “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix original series centered on a high school student who kills herself, is raising the alarms of some school officials who have sent letters to parents warning them about what their children may be watching.

“While the show is fictional, the series is extremely graphic, including several rape scenes, and raises significant concerns about the emotional safety of those watching it,” reads part of a letter sent Monday to parents of public school students in Montclair, New Jersey.

Andrew Evangelista, Montclair Public Schools District's mental health and harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) Coordinator, said he wrote the letter to parents in the district’s 11 schools after hearing about the series from students and watching it himself.

“It just didn’t seem right,” Evangelista said of “13 Reasons Why,” which is based on a 2007 young adult novel of the same name. “There were a lot of questions I had, about how the girl was portrayed and the lack of mental health resources that were available to her.”

The 13-part serial, which is co-produced by Selena Gomez, revolves around the story of 17-year-old Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people who she says were part of why she killed herself.

PHOTO: Dylan Minnette in Netflix's "13 Reasons Why."
Dylan Minnette in Netflix's "13 Reasons Why."

Ali Trapp, the mother of three children who attend Montclair Public Schools, said she appreciated the letter she and her husband received from school officials. Trapp said she and her husband wrestled with allowing their 12- and 13-year-old daughters to watch "13 Reasons Why" after one of the girls read the book.

They ultimately decided to allow them to watch the show only in the presence of a parent and when their 9-year-old brother is not home.

"It’s been quite interesting how quickly this exploded on the scene," Trapp told ABC News, describing the series as a "hot topic" among her friends. "These kinds of things are very hard for parents. ... We’re left in this weird conundrum [where] I understand them wanting to watch it but as a parent I’m not sure that it is appropriate."

The series’ premiere last month quickly drew buzz and the ire of some suicide prevention advocacy groups, which expressed concerns that the show could increase the instances of suicide among youths. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 34, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The accessibility of the show on Netflix, which can be watched by kids on their laptops or iPhone and streamed all in one sitting, is also raising flags for school administrators and mental health professionals.

A letter sent by administrators at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in New York City, warned parents that students of all ages may be aware of the series. “13 Reasons Why” is rated TV-MA, which stands for Mature Audience Only.

“We have heard from students, particularly in the middle school, who have viewed the series and/or have been discussing it with peers, but we know upper school students have also watched the series, and we are concerned about whether students in our lower schools are aware of it too, especially those students with older siblings,” reads the letter sent Monday, which was obtained by ABC News.

“While the show's producers claim their intent is to start an important dialogue about bullying and suicide, mental health experts have expressed deep concerns about how the show may be perceived as glorifying and romanticizing suicide, and they worry about how it may trigger children who are vulnerable," the letter reads, in part.

Dr. Christine Moutier, a psychiatrist, is the chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in New York City. Moutier said she chose to allow her 16-year-old daughter to watch “13 Reasons Why” but is watching each episode with her and allowing time for conversation before watching the next episode.

“I’m watching it, just slowly and measured and making a point to talk about it and consider it between my daughter and myself,” Moutier told ABC News. “I’m having a hard time getting my head around watching it without that process.”

The AFSP has noticed a recent increase in parents and educators seeking information on how to help children process “13 Reasons Why,” according to Moutier.

She called it “commendable” that some school officials are offering support to parents around the show’s content.

“It’s kind of a judgment call whether to draw more attention to anything that is potentially risky to students,” Moutier said. “But in this case, because it’s so widely out there, I think the proactive approach with the parent community is really appropriate and commendable.”

The Montgomery County Public Schools District in Montgomery, Maryland, is leaving the judgment call on sending a letter to parents up to each individual principal in its 204-school district. So far, just around four schools have sent a letter to parents about “13 Reasons Why.”

“Principals are going based off of what they’re hearing in their school community, if kids are having conversations or they’re hearing discussions from parents,” said Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala. “As principals hear concerns from their community, many have decided the best way to address it is to send a note home to parents, letting them know we recommend the best way to watch it is with an adult and giving them links to resources.”

Netflix said it sought the advice of "medical professionals" when developing "13 Reasons Why."

"From the onset of work on 13 Reasons Why, we have been mindful both of the show's intense themes and the intended audience," the company said in a statement last week to ABC News.

"We support the unflinching vision of the show’s creators, who engaged the careful advice of medical professionals in the scriptwriting process," the statement read. "The series carries a TV-MA rating as well as graphic content warnings preceding specific episodes, along with an after-show and companion website with additional resources. Our members tell us that 13 Reasons Why has helped spark important conversations in their families and communities around the world."

The company posted on its website Monday an online survey it says found that parents who watch their teens’ entertainment shows with them feel closer to their teens.

The release also included a section with links to resources for watching “13 Reasons Why” with your teenager.

Moutier, of the AFSP, recommends that only children older than age 11 watch “13 Reasons Why." Beyond that age limit, she recommends parents decide what is best for their own kids.

“If a child is someone with known suicide risks and vulnerability, then I think for those youth, and adults frankly, there’s just not a lot of upside of exposing them,” she said. “It really does depend on the individual.”

If a parent does choose to allow their child to watch “13 Reasons Why,” Moutier offers these tips for making it as successful an experience as possible.

1) Start with an open conversation: "Ask your child have you heard of this show? Have you watched it? How did it affect you? And really listen because it might provide a window into some of their own thoughts and feelings and which themes they gravitated toward the most."

2) Watch with your child: "Watch it together every few days and talk about it while watching it."

3) Educate yourself on suicide prevention: "It’s really helpful to know basic facts and how to approach a conversation about suicide. Learning the warning signs is one of the most obvious things that any parent can do."

The AFSP plans to release in the coming days a webinar for parents and educators on how to start a conversation around "13 Reasons Why" with children. The foundation is partnering with the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the American School Counselors Association (ASCA) on the resource, according to Moutier.

For those in need of further guidance on suicide prevention, especially in schools, the three organizations have already collaborated on a "model school policy for suicide prevention," available online. The NASP also has its own "13 Reasons Why" guide for educators and families on its website.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.

ABC News' Catherine Thorbecke contributed to this report.