By: Izzy Kalman, MS, NCSP
I greatly enjoyed the first season of the Netflix mega-hit series, 13 Reasons Why, and have so far watched the first two episodes of the recently-released second season. The show is broadly considered a series about bullying, though doing so trivializes it. Unless we wish to call all negative behavior “bullying,” it is only marginally about bullying. It is about the myriad of painful complexities of life for adolescents, their schools, and their families. Yet the show does have something important to reveal about bullying, or more accurately, one aspect of bullying, namely, the movement to get rid of it.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, it centers on the suicide of a high school student, Hannah Baker, who had prepared a set of audiotapes implicating thirteen people in her decision to end her life.
Perhaps the most obvious message of the story is that Hannah’s suicide cannot be attributed to any one factor, as numerous people – including herself – played a role in causing the desperation that led to her demise. It is also clear that what happened to her does not fit the typical situation of bullying, in which a child is relentlessly picked on by one or more specific children over a period of time. There are, indeed, kids with such circumstances who have taken their own lives to end their misery. Hannah, in contrast, was involved in a large, twisting tapestry of teenage life, a drama that included being raped by one of the school’s jocks.
Shortly after Hannah’s suicide, her distraught mother heard that “bullying may have been involved.” Her immediate reaction, which sets the stage for the rest of the series, was, “We have to sue the school.”
The “anti-bullying” movement has led us to take it as self-evident that schools are responsible for bullying, that they deserve to be sued for failing to stop it, and that suing schools will pressure them to finally take bullying seriously enough to make it stop. I could not find even one reviewer of 13 Reasons Why that noted anything odd about Mrs. Baker’s decision to take the school to court. Just like the obvious thing to do when we are involved in a car accident is to notify the police and our insurance agency, suing our schools has become the obvious thing to do when our children are bullied.
I have been warning ever since anti-bullying laws began to be considered, that they wouldn’t put a stop to bullying, but that they would make it easy for parents to sue schools for failing to put a stop to bullying. How ironic that parents can’t get their own couple of kids to stop picking on each other at home, yet they expect schools to stop the bullying among hundreds or even thousands of kids!
I have argued that anti-bullying laws are an unfair assault against schools, that they would result in the intensification of hostilities among students, staff and parents, and that they would lead to more frequent killings and suicides. And this is where 13 Reasons Why shows its brilliance, fleshing out what happens when parents sue schools for bullying.
When you watch 13 Reasons Why, don’t pay attention only to the dramas of the characters involved. Look at the larger picture of the story, the story of a school being sued for bullying. Consider how it affects all the characters involved, and whether it helps anyone or makes them more miserable. You will never see school anti-bullying laws the same way again.
Fortunately, Be Strong is taking a different approach to bullying. Rather than trying to force everyone to be nice to each other, and demanding that schools be held legally responsible for accomplishing this impossible task, it is teaching children how to handle social challenges on their own, thus avoiding all the misery-enhancing dramas that are the inevitable byproduct of lawsuits.