Michigan high school gives students hope with anti-suicide 13 Reasons Why Not campaign

Michigan school features student stories about reasons to live.

ByABC News
May 9, 2017, 6:37 PM

— -- The Netflix original series "13 Reasons Why" has sparked debate in recent weeks as many have voiced concern over whether it could promote or justify teen suicide.

After Netflix announced the show would have a second season, one Michigan high school decided to launch a campaign to give students hope, calling it 13 Reasons Why Not.

The program is meant to address the issues of bullying and suicide in the school district, which is still coping with the loss of student Megan Abbott, who committed suicide in 2013 just weeks before the end of the school year, according to Denise Sweat, an assistant superintendent of student services for Oxford Community Schools.

Sweat told ABC News that the show has created intense conversations in hallways, classrooms and the cafeteria. Some students were livestreaming "13 Reasons Why" at their lunchroom tables. Christie DeSano, a sign language teacher, approached Pam Fine, the dean of Oxford High School and the Olweus Bully Prevention coordinator, as she began to hear these conversations intensify this April.

Fine decided it was time to develop a plan, according to Sweat. So a team of staffers and the Bully Buster leadership class created the 13 Reasons Why Not project. She told ABC News they discussed how the project would unfold.

"What if we did the same format as the show. We have a student get on the intercom and tell a real story of a difficult time they have had in high school — cyberbullying, dating, home life, sexting — and when it gets to the part where they say, 'This tape is for you,' instead of naming the person who had hurt them, they name a person who helped them," Sweat said. "They thank the person and tell them why they are one of their 13 reasons why not. Then at the end of the tape, every day for 13 days, we would close with an anti-suicide message."

The campaign began May 1, and throughout the week, the 1,800 students heard stories about body shaming, poverty, being told to kill themselves, feeling unwanted, trouble at home and more. Awareness boards immediately filled the school with 24-hour hotline numbers, anti-suicide messages and mental health referral information. Additionally, seven trained counselors were made available immediately, Sweat told ABC.

The response has been positive, she said. On Day One, Riley Juntti, who shared her story about physical and emotional abuse, received more than 100 texts and tweets, which Sweat said were all positive. When it was Riley's time to provide a name, she said, "So this tape is for you, Elise Godfrey," who had helped Riley through her hard time.

Juntti told ABC News that the response to the program has been "incredibly impactful."

"It created an environment in our school where it's acceptable to talk about mental illness," she told ABC News, "or talk to people you have never talked to."

"Students have left flowers in the girls' bathrooms, along with messages on the mirrors telling them they are beautiful and awesome," Sweat said.

She added that parents were originally upset because they were not given advance notice. After an email blast to parents went out, the support and gratitude came pouring in.

Kayla Manzella was the youngest person on the school's volleyball team. She said the upperclassmen would bully her. Now in her senior year, as she shared her story. She told ABC she appreciated that each student has a different aspect to talk about. "None of our stories are alike, so it's good that we are spreading out different," she said.

For Alexa Alban, who spoke about body image and emphasized it does not have to be about weight and could be about race or where a person comes from, said the project has been her most humbling experience.

Dylan Koss is an openly gay student at Oxford High School who said he has been public about his identity for some time. He wanted to speak about his fears of coming out to his Catholic family, as well as tell students that he feels it is not OK to use the term "gay" negatively. He told ABC it was difficult for him to recall his feelings as he wrote down what he was going to say to the student body. He said it was "a weird feeling" because he knew others were listening but didn't know what they were thinking or feeling.

Sweat said that, each day, countless students have gone to Fine's office to have their story shared with the school. Though the school will choose only 13 stories, the students are already being more supportive of one another than before.

Oxford High School wants to make the new message clear, she said, "Be each other's why nots. Focus on the why nots."

The production team for the Netflix series previously responded to criticism that the show could encourage suicide, saying they had consulted with mental health professionals extensively while making the series and provide suicide help resources.

In honor of Megan Abbott, her family members started the Pay It Forward Scholarship Fund near what would have been her graduation date, according to local paper The Oakland Press. They awarded three students $1,000 and two students $500 from the college savings that would have gone to her.