Students at an Edmonton elementary school have been ordered to refrain from discussion about 13 Reasons Why, a controversial Netflix series about the suicide of a teenage student, while they are at school.
In an email sent to parents this week, St. Vincent Elementary School principal Azza Ghali asks them to tell their children not to talk about the show with their classmates.
What kids watch at home is up to the parents, Ghali says in the email. But she wanted to let them know "many students are watching and discussing this" at school.
"The discussion that is unfolding at school is troubling," the email says. "Please let your child know that discussion of 13 Reasons Why is not permitted at school due to the disturbing subject matter."
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13 Reasons Why tells the story of a fictional 17-year-old girl who leaves audiotapes for the people she blames for driving her to die by suicide. The girl's death is shown in an extended scene that has been described as graphic and disturbing.
Concern about 13 Reasons Why has prompted schools across North America to send letters home to parents, usually encouraging them to talk to their children about suicide or to watch the show in order to facilitate discussion about its mature themes.
The St. Vincent email does not encourage parents to talk with their children about the issue.
Parents should talk to kids
Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary, acknowledged suicide is a difficult issue for schools to address because some parents aren't ready for their children to have that discussion.
"I want to encourage parents to not be afraid to have the conversation because it is much better for you to have the conversation than to learn things from the school yard," Grunau said.
"Social media doesn't wait for parent consent," Grunau added. "And social media is not bound by the same decorum and standards that mainstream media is."
Lori Nagy, manager of media and community relations for Edmonton Catholic Schools which includes St. Vincent, said the email from the principal was prompted by concern about students who were disturbed hearing descriptions of the series shared by their classmates.
"What the principal was trying to do is to remove the conversation from the classroom and put it back in the home," Nagy said.
Nagy acknowledged the email didn't encourage parents to talk with their children about the series. She said the principal now feels the tone she used in the email was too harsh.
Series blamed for glamorizing suicide
As someone who works in suicide prevention, Grunau takes issue with how 13 Reasons Why portrays suicide.
The opening shot of a memorial on the student's locker glamorizes suicide, which sends the wrong message to a young person thinking of taking their own life, she said.
Grunau is also concerned how the main character sees suicide as a way to seek revenge on the people who bullied and tormented her.
"[People] don't die by suicide because they're angry at somebody," she said. "People do not kill themselves to be vengeful. And unfortunately, that is a bit of a theme of this story."
Grunau said people only resort to suicide when they can't see another way to escape a deep psychological pain. Intervention can make a big difference, she said.
Grunau said her organization has a resource guide for teachers who want to talk to their students about the issues raised by 13 Reasons Why.
Here is the text of the principal's message to parents:
Dear Grade Six parents,
It is has come to Miss Ciezki's and my attention that some students are watching a Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why. The discussion that is unfolding at school is troubling. This series is rated Mature and the theme is the suicide of a high school student. This show includes graphic violence (rape) and gore, profanity, alcohol/drugs/smoking, and frightening/intense scenes.
Of course what your child watches on television is completely your choice, however I wanted to let you know that many students are watching and discussing this at school.
The purpose of this email is to provide you with this information. Please let your child know that discussion of 13 Reasons Why is not permitted at school due to the disturbing subject matter.
Should you have any question, please do not hesitate to contact me. If you have questions about this show, please feel free to contact Miss Ciezki, who has watched the series.