Colorado school district temporarily withdraws '13 Reasons Why' book after rash of teen suicides

Colorado school district temporarily withdraws '13 Reasons Why' book after rash of teen suicides
A Colorado school district, mourning the deaths of seven students who committed suicide, temporarily pulled the controversial young adult novel “Thirteen Reasons Why” from library circulation. Critics argued the book romanticizes suicide.

There is no indication the book influenced the students who all committed suicide since the beginning of the school year in the Mesa County Valley School District in Colorado. Some librarians called the move censorship.

“It would be hard for anybody who has dealt with suicide to not have a heightened awareness of things, to perhaps be a little more cautious about things,” Leigh Grasso, the curriculum director for the 22,000-student Mesa County Valley School District who decided to pull the book, told AP.

The bestselling novel, published in 2007, follows a high school girl who kills herself after suffering a series of demoralizing circumstances and creates a series of tapes for her classmates to play after her death. She gave the tapes to people who influenced her decision. The book is the basis for a popular series on Netflix, “13 Reasons Why.”

Mesa County is already reeling from the deaths of seven students who committed suicide in separate incidents this year. Two students committed suicides back-to-back in April, although they attended different schools.

“Mesa County’s combination of urban issues, strong attitude of self-reliance and social isolation may be some of the factors contributing to higher rates of suicide,” the Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation wrote on its website. “Unfortunately, the trend line shows an increase in the number of suicides over the past year.”

The county is already known as one of the top five counties for suicide in Colorado. Its 2016 Mesa County Coroner’s Suicide Report showed a 10 percent increase on the previously year with 48 suicides involving people in the 10-29 age range.

The Netflix series, which shows the girl’s death in a graphic scene in the final episode of the first season, prompted schools across the country to send letters to parents and guardians on tips on how to prevent suicide.

Stars of the series have defended it, arguing that mental health experts were involved in the production.

“I think they’re not watching the same show. When we were working on it, we had tons of mental health experts on set at all times, our producers were very diligent on making sure that the tone was inclusive and helpful and not harmful,” Christian Navarro, an actor who plays the girl’s boyfriend on the show, told People.

He said he respects the varied opinions, even suggesting it can be a valuable show for parents to watch with their kids.

“I think there’s always going to be controversy. I respect their opinion, especially when it comes from a place of trying to protect their kids. I think they should listen to their children, though, this is happening right now all over the world in high schools. I think the parents should watch it with them,” said Navarro, who plays Tony Padilla on the show.

Grasso has not read the book or watched the series and is the only one so far who has removed the book from circulation, AP reported.  Another school district in Minnesota temporarily pulled the book after a parent complained that it referenced sex.

The book was made available again after librarians and school counselors determined it did not include scenes as graphic as those depicted in the Netflix series, Grasso said.

“I think we were just being cautious until we had the opportunity to look at the book and see how closely related to the movie it was,” she told AP.

Grasso said her decision did not amount to censorship because the book was not permanently banned — an argument that drew some pushback in the school district.

James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said he understands why Grasso wanted to review the book, but “instead of just reacting to a moment, you get people together and make a sensible decision.”

“Sometimes the world is a dangerous place, but reading about it isn’t,” he said.