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A distressed student with their head in their hands.

Dawkins Advocates for Student Safety: Addressing '13 Reasons Why'

By now, you’ve heard about—or are dealing firsthand with—the controversy associated with the new original Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.”

The show tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who commits suicide, but not before sending audio tapes to the people she says contributed to her fateful decision.

Since its release in late March, the show has become immensely popular among teens. Parents and educators alike have expressed concerns about its message, some contend that the show glamorizes self-harm and student-on-student abuse and could lead to real-life tragedies. Across the country, several schools have sent letters home informing parents of the show’s controversial content and imagery while advising them to monitor their children for signs of depression or otherwise potentially harmful behavior.

Just this week, in the wake of seven student suicides, a Colorado school district temporarily pulled the young adult book that inspired the Netflix show from its shelves. Though there is no proof that the book influenced the students’ behavior.

Want more on school crisis prevention? Read Update: Crisis prevention starts with listening

As a former school district superintendent, I know the delicate line school leaders must toe when addressing sensitive issues about student safety and well-being, particularly when it comes to issues of self-harm or of suicide.

As school leaders, we need to effectively address these very sensitive issues. Despite your best proactive efforts, the sad truth is that many of you have had to deal with student tragedies in some form in your careers.

There is often a tendency in schools to whisper about such unspeakable tragedies. And, while tact and common sense are essential, passive leadership is not an option.

Schools need to exhaust every possible precaution to prevent students from harming themselves or others.

Like it or not, student suicide is in the spotlight right now. As difficult a topic as it is to talk about, our schools should seize this opportunity to have constructive, educational, and empathetic conversations with their communities about a very real, and very painful problem.

During my time as a superintendent, I held fast to a three-step strategy for identifying, responding to, and protecting young people at risk for self-harm. I’m not sure whether these strategies are right for you or your school community. But, given the headlines of the last several weeks, I felt compelled to share them here. Provided you are dealing with these issues in your schools, my hope is that these suggestions can help.

1. Make suicide prevention part of your district’s health and safety plan.

Suicide is unlike any other issue school leaders must face. But there are commonsense steps you can take to monitor and reduce the risk of such tragedies. These steps should be built into your school’s safety plan, much like steps for fire or safety drills. Part of that prevention effort should include implementing proactive systems for monitoring potential calls for help, or hints of abuse—both online and offline—and recognizing the signs.

2. Equip school counselors and other designated staff with the latest suicide prevention techniques and information.

If nothing else, the controversy surrounding 13 Reasons Why will help school-based counselors better understand the conversations students have about suicide and other sensitive topics with educators, with their parents and, ultimately, with each other. Counselors are often your last line of defense. Districts must provide these people with the latest suicide information and preventive techniques to safely guide students through times of self-doubt and personal turmoil.

3. Focus on parents.

If school counselors are the last line of prevention, parents are often the first. Few steps are more critical to guarding against student self-harm than engaging parents. When these challenges crop up, they present an opportunity to engage parents in productive dialogues and to outline steps they can take at home to complement precautions and warning signs in place at school. (Note: That doesn’t necessarily mean you should wait for something to happen before engaging parents. Consider hosting educational programs and trainings that parents can participate in throughout the year.)

Sadly, student suicide isn’t new. But the speed with which information travels on social media is. Due to the viral nature of student communication in the wake of these and other tragedies, schools have to be prepared.

We’re already seeing a new potential threat in the phenomenon known as the “Blue Whale Challenge,” which provokes teens into a series of dangerous challenges, including suicide. The game, or fad—some say it’s a hoax—has spread across Europe and Asia and now has U.S. school leaders concerned.

Staying proactive, engaged, and prepared will help you identify potential threats and to take whatever steps necessary to keep students safe.

Have you attempted to address your school community in the wake of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why? Have you otherwise been forced to confront these issues in your schools? What steps are you taking? Tell us in the comments.