By: Melanie Lust ’19
All hard copies of “13 Reasons Why” were removed from the Bedford Middle School library and from Bedford and Coleytown’s English book rooms on Monday, April 24, following concerns about the popular Netflix Original show’s adaptation. According to Coleytown’s librarian, John Horrigan, the book would have also been pulled from his library, but the only copy was missing.
In response to parent outcries, Superintendent Dr. Colleen Palmer sent a mass email to parents on Friday, April 21 warning of the graphic depictions of suicide and sexual assault found in the Netflix series. The email included talking points for parents to have with children who may have been watching the show.
“Many students were watching it and the content could affect adolescents, especially pre-adolescents, in various different ways,” Palmer said. “We just want parents to understand what their students are watching and give them resources so they can have thoughtful conversations with their students.”
The following Monday, the books were removed from the middle schools.
“I asked that we do a temporary review [of the book], and based on the level of concern from our parents, I asked that while we’re reviewing [the t.v. show], if we would not leave [the book] out,” Palmer said. “I know that middle schoolers especially might be overwhelmed by that content that they maybe don’t understand or can’t process.”
According to the Westport Public School’s Board of Education [BOE] Policy Manual, typical Westport procedure for removing books consists of a ten-step review, where a written parent complaint is filed first through educators, followed by a review by the building principal and the Superintendent Review Committee, before reaching the Superintendent for final review. During the review, the material in question remains in schools until a decision is made.
Palmer’s decision to directly pull “13 Reasons Why” from the book rooms and Bedford’s library breaks with the established Westport book review procedure.
“It goes against BOE policy,” Horrigan said. “There was no written challenge so the school system has no right to [intervene].”
However, Palmer defended her decision to pull the book. “Under typical situations where there is no concern about the well-being of our students, I don’t think books would be removed; I think they would remain. This was an unusual circumstance in which parents articulated concern about the safety and well-being of students.”
A committee of educators, led by Director of Technology Natalie Carrignan, has been called for additional review of the material and is set to meet the week of May 1.
Added controversy surrounds the administration’s decision to pull the book from the middle school library because doing so may be in violation of the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in BOE v. Pico. The court decided in a 5-4 decision that school libraries were protected “centers for voluntary inquiry and the dissemination of information and ideas,” and that “school libraries enjoy a special affinity with the rights of free speech and press,” according to Oyez, an archive of the Supreme Court of the United States.
When Palmer was asked if she thought her decision to pull the book from the middle school library violated the BOE v. Pico ruling, she said that her actions were done in an attempt to protect children.
“Because we’re looking at the well-being of our students, I believe that that supersedes anything at this time,” Palmer said. “I don’t think those rulings about free speech and library books had anything to do with student well-being or students who may be in harm’s way.”
Nevertheless, there are those who object to the administration breaking with procedure.
Horrigan believes that any form of book censorship is worrisome. “I think there’s lots of different points of view out there about things and that we need to be extremely cautious before we ever even consider, you know, censoring or restricting access to information. It’s just a really slippery slope, very dangerous, and not anything that educators should be involved in,” Horrigan said.
Steven Rexford, eighth grade English teacher at Bedford, was also upset when the books were pulled for review, citing major differences between the graphic TV show and the book.
“In the book, you never see or know about the suicide; she just disappears,” Rexford said. “Besides, I mean, we have way worse. ‘The Bible,’ ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ how about ‘The Odyssey’?”
Rexford added, however, that he does not wish to contradict Palmer’s decision and respects the caution the administration took.
English department coordinator for sixth through 12th grade, Julie Heller said the book can actually be beneficial to student mental health.
“Given the events of last year, there might still be students who have questions about suicide, and this book might be a platform for that discussion,” Heller said.
Heller added that when she worked in a different school district in 2007, the book “13 Reasons Why” was offered as a means for students to cope after the school district experienced an array of student suicides.
However, coordinator of psychological services at Westport Public Schools, Valerie Babich, does consider the temporary ban as beneficial due to the misleading and unrealistic TV adaptation of the book.
“The way they portrayed the school counselor in general, as not particularly helpful and dismissive, is certainly not true in our schools,” Babich said. “It kind of sends the message that Hannah Baker, the main character, was really struggling and nobody was noticing or making any attempts to help her. That’s certainly not the message we want to send to teenagers, where suicide is a concern.”
She added that the school administration knows suicide is preventable and does extensive work to educate the community about warning signs of depression.
The controversy surrounding “13 Reasons Why” has garnered mixed community reactions.
Some parents took issue with the show’s depiction of suicide, claiming it was heavily romanticized.
.”I agree with the Superintendent’s message that it glorifies suicide and I don’t think of it as censorship; I think of it as filtering,” Westport mother, Danielle Teplica said. But some students believed that the book should not be punished for any failings found in the Netflix show.
“I honestly don’t believe that the schools should be censoring such an important issue even though it is middle school kids; they may still have thoughts of suicide or have dealt with rape and reading about it can bring awareness to these topics,” Lexi Tuccinardi ’19 said.
While many schools across the country have also pulled the book, some districts have decided to keep it in circulation. According to Ledyard Middle School’s [LMS] principal, Christopher Pomroy, to date, the only action taken at LMS was to send a letter to parents.
“The purpose of the letter was purely to inform parents of the show, although we did so without trying to place any judgement on the show,” Pomroy said. “For the record, I personally do not have any issues with it, nor do I have any issues with kids watching it.”
Pomroy acknowledged the controversy middle schools face as they decide whether or not to ban the book, but stands by his decision to keep the book on the shelves. “Inevitably there will be those who support the cause and see the value in what we are trying to accomplish. And on the other side, there will be those who misunderstand our intentions,” Pomroy said. “At the end of the day, I believe it is our responsibility to raise awareness, and I can tell you that here at Ledyard Middle we will continue doing just that if and when other issues arise.”
In contrast, the main concern, according to Palmer, is whether or not the material in the book is developmentally appropriate for middle school students. “[Pulling a book from circulation] is not anything I have ever done before,” Palmer said, “but again, I am going to err on the side of safety. It’s just part of the business that we take care of our students each and every day.”