New York State School Boards Association

Students respond to Netflix series with '13 Reasons Why Not'

by Eric D. Randall

On Board Online • June 12, 2017

By Eric D. Randall
Editor-in-Chief

Lately, high school announcements at the Delaware Academy in Delhi are anything but routine and boring.

In response to the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why," students and staff in the 700-student district in the southern Catskills are reading self-revelatory statements over the public address system. They call it, "13 Reasons Why Not."

Superintendent Jason Thomson describes it as "a collaborative student- and staff-led program to combat anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide."

In the Netflix series, a fictional girl who committed suicide leaves behind tapes in which she explains how 13 people let her down. In the Delaware project, the message is quite different. Students and faculty explain how they have experienced and survived dark times, and they single out someone who deserves credit for helping them get through it.

Typically, the student speeches conclude with: "Thank you for being one of my 13 reasons why not."

The idea started with four students including junior Kaitlynn Finch, who heard about a similar effort organized by a student at Oxford High School near Detroit, Mich.

'" Finch told WBNG-TV. "We're having really big issues with suicide and depression and anxiety at our school, and we really need to get something going."

What's different in Delaware Academy is that staff are also getting on the P.A. and telling personal stories. "The message is: I was a kid, too," Thomson said. "I felt like you do. There is hope."

Thomson has stepped up to the microphone himself, telling students about how he suffered from social anxiety and depression as a teen, and that "I even contemplated hurting myself."

"Needless to say, I was very nervous to share my story," Thomson said. But he said it's important that students understand that they are not alone in experiencing any kind of problem, and that getting help is sign of strength, not weakness.

As recommended by the student organizers, all student speeches are rehearsed, reviewed, and approved by Thomson and Michele Cleveland, a school counselor. Speakers under age 18 must obtain parental permission.

There has been no shortage of speakers - or dialogue about the topics they raise. "It turns out that students want to talk about mental health." Thomson said.

Thomson said he senses that something has changed in the atmosphere of the district's single school building. Students seem more comfortable asking for some kind of support, big or small.

The other day, a high school student poked her head in his office. He was aware that there was illness in her family. The girl said, "Can I sit here for a minute?"

Sure, he said. The girl didn't seem to want to talk, though. She just wanted to take advantage of what she considered a safe - or maybe just quiet - space.

Surmising this, Thomson said, "I'm going to just keep working, okay?" A few minutes later, the girl stood, said "Thanks," and went on with her day.

Thomson said he thinks "13 Reasons Why Not" could work in other districts. Or, he said, it might stimulate discussions about other ways schools can encourage students to seek support when experiencing depressed, suicidal or other troublesome thoughts or moods.

The Delaware Academy program continues through June 12.

"I think we're saving lives," Thomson said.


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