In the backdrop of a Colorado community mourning the loss of seven students who recently took their own lives, a school district official directed librarians to temporarily stop circulating a book that is the basis for Netflix’s popular new series titled “13 Reasons Why,” which some critics say romanticises suicide.
The order irked certain librarians who have termed the move “censorship”, and it appears to be an atypical case where the book has been removed from circulation – albeit for the time being.
It has also put the spotlight on the debate about appraising freedom of speech with concerns over the well being of students.
“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,” said Leigh Grasso, the curriculum director for the 22,000-student Mesa County Valley School District who decided to pull out the book.
The young adult novel, published in 2007, is primed on the story of a high school girl who kills herself after creating a series of tapes for her classmates to play following her death. She gave the tapes to people who influenced her decision.
Her death in the Netflix series is depicted in the final episode of the first season, and the graphic scene precipitated educational institutes nationwide to send letters to parents and guardians with tips on how to prevent suicide.
From upstate New York to the Midwest and California, school administrators have warned that the series sensationalises suicide and does not provide a good road map for people struggling with mental illness. There is no evidence that any of the Mesa County students who killed themselves since the beginning of the school year were inspired by the series or the book.
Grasso, who has not read the book or watched the series, appears to be one of only a few school leaders in the country who has taken the book out of circulation. Another school district in Minnesota temporarily pulled the book after a parent complained that it referenced sex.
The curriculum director cited media attention and recent events in an April 28 email to district librarians letting them know about her decision.
Of the 20 copies available in the school district, 19 were checked out at the time and were not affected by the directive. Still, several librarians protested, and the order was rescinded about three hours after it was issued.
Grasso said 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.
“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 The Associated Press.
She added that her decision did not amount to censorship because the book was not permanently banned – an argument that drew some pushback in the school district.
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel cited one librarian saying there is a formal, board-approved process to challenge books in the district.
“I believe it is our duty to follow that process, because censorship is a slippery slope,” the librarian wrote.
The newspaper, which obtained the feedback through an open records request and did not name the librarians, reported that a middle school librarian wrote: “Once we start pulling and censoring books for all students as a reactive measure there is no line to which we follow.”
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