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13 Reasons Why Not: Michigan Teens Talk Honestly About Suicide


The controversial Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" dramatizes a teen's suicide.


KATHERINE LANGFORD: (As Hannah Baker) Hey, it's Hannah. Hannah Baker.

SHAPIRO: Through a series of 13 left-behind audio recordings, viewers learn about why Baker chose to end her life and the classmates she blames for her downfall. In response, one high school in Oxford, Mich., launched a project to reframe the popular show.

RILEY JUNTTI: Hey, it's Riley. Riley Juntti.

SHAPIRO: Thirteen students from Oxford High School wrote and recorded personal stories. The school played them during the morning announcements. The recordings address many of the same issues brought up in the Netflix series. The two even sound similar.


LANGFORD: (As Hannah Baker) Get a snack...

JUNTTI: Settle in...


LANGFORD: (As Hannah Baker) Because I'm about to tell you...

JUNTTI: The story of my life.

SHAPIRO: Youth Radio's Valencia White reports on the suicide prevention project called 13 Reasons Why Not.

VALENCIA WHITE: For Pam Fine, dean of students at Oxford High School, her criticisms of the TV show "13 Reasons Why" start with the title.

PAM FINE: It just sounds as if there's a reason why. There's no reason, there's never a reason, there's not a million reasons.

WHITE: Suicide is a sensitive topic on Fine's campus. Two students from Oxford High died by suicide in recent years. So when "13 Reasons Why" was released on Netflix, everyone on campus was talking about it. Fine says a faculty member pulled her aside to say they needed to come up with some kind of response.

FINE: Standing there, like right then, I was like, hey, you know what we could try? I thought, how do you reframe "13 Reasons Why," where you blame people, and it would be 13 Reasons Why Not, where you thank people for being your hope and your inspiration and positive factor in your life.

WHITE: Oxford senior Kayla Manzella is one of the 13 students who recorded stories for the project. Manzella talked about being bullied her freshman year after joining the JV volleyball team. This is part of the recording that played for all 1,800 students during the morning announcements.


KAYLA MANZELLA: Things were said to me that no one deserves to hear. I always thought to myself, why me? What could I have done for someone to possibly hate me so much? One day at practice, I heard the worst thing someone could ever hear - why don't you just go kill yourself? Being the vulnerable 14-year-old I was, I thought to myself, would anything really change if I wasn't here?

WHITE: Manzella's recording ends with a shout-out to her friend, Alexa, for helping her get through it.


MANZELLA: You may not realize how big of an impact your words had on me. And for that, I could simply never repay you. So thank you, Alexa, for being the bright light in my dark time. You are one of the 13 reasons why not.


Fellow senior Dylan Koss recorded a message about homophobia.


DYLAN KOSS: I heard the jokes about me, but more importantly, I hear, that's gay, you look gay about everyday things. The message is always the same - gay is bad. Gay isn't bad. Gay isn't good. Gay is just who I am.

WHITE: Koss says the school hallways have felt different since the project started, more supportive and cohesive, and that sharing his personal story has helped him, too.

KOSS: Listening to yourself on the PA system, it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. After hearing that, I will never forget that feeling. Like, I've finally come to terms, 100 percent.

WHITE: Oxford High administrators require parental permission before students share their stories in school. For many, including Koss, it was the first time they talked to their families about what they'd been through.

KOSS: We keep our stories in to protect our parents, not to protect ourselves.

SIEGEL: Senior Riley Juntti also kept her pain secret from parents and friends.

JUNTTI: I was struggling with this very, very dark period of my life. But then I also had to go to school and act like a perfect student and get all A's and put on a face that really wasn't my own.

WHITE: Juntti was the first student at Oxford High to volunteer for the project. Other students I talked to say her announcement gave them the courage to finally come forward with their own stories. In her recording, Juntti addresses her abuser and the isolation she felt from her friends.


JUNTTI: Worthless, self-centered, no morals, easy, grimy, cake face, you would be better off dead - that's just a start of what you would label me as every day for two years. They asked me why I didn't leave you sooner, why I chose to stay in an abusive relationship. I was afraid.

WHITE: Administrators say first period tardies have been down because students want to be in their seats to hear the stories. I asked Oxford High's dean of students, Pam Fine, if she was afraid to go there, to talk so openly about teen suicide in school.

FINE: It's terrifying that teens are killing themselves. But it doesn't frighten me at all to sit with kids and say talk to us.

WHITE: Fine says teens are going to watch "13 Reasons Why" and they're going to talk about it. She says there are 13 Reasons Why Not was a way to make that dialogue more meaningful. For NPR News, I'm Valencia White.

SHAPIRO: That story was produced by Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Valencia White