DENVER – Durango School District 9-R has sent a letter to staff and parents to thank them for their involvement in the suicide prevention summit and to warn about two issues that have gained national attention: the “Blue Whale Challenge” and the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.”
Superintendent Dan Snowberger describes the “Blue Whale Challenge” as a “game” perpetuated on social media. There are conflicting reports about its content or if it actually exists.
What has been reported by several publications and shared throughout the twittersphere is that the “game” is a series of self-destructive challenges that end by encouraging participants to kill themselves.
While the game may be mostly fueled by social media, talk of it has been overheard in 9-R schools, Snowberger said.
“Our kids are talking about that in school, and if you’re not aware of what that is, you might think ‘oh, that’s cute, Blue Whale Challenge,’ and yet when you research it, it’s really a list of some pretty alarming things they are challenging young people to do,” he said.
The district is intervening where possible, but the larger concern is “the conversation we may not be aware of,” he said, such as those between students outside of the school or away from adults.
“13 Reasons Why” is a Netflix series released in March, but based on a book published in 2007, focused on the suicide of a 17-year-old girl and a set of recordings she leaves behind to chronicle the reasons she killed herself.
The series is in the national spotlight because of the mature content and themes it covers, such as suicide, bullying and sexual assault, and controversy over whether it glorifies youth suicide.
Snowberger said these are examples of how children’s media exposure has changed in the 21st century.
“With Netflix, with Hulu, with Vudu, with fill in the blank, all of those abilities of watching whatever we want and searching a keyword, you know the days of anything before 8 o’clock was kid-friendly and as long as your kids went to bed on time they weren’t being exposed – those are gone,” he said.
Stephanie Allred, clinical director of Axis Health System, said parents should have conversations with their children about the media they are consuming and do some research into it.
“It’s important to be knowledgeable of what they are exposed to,” Allred said.
The May 19 letter, which was released through email, includes links to resources for parents and educators whose children are watching the Netflix series, as well as information about setting parental controls to restrict what programing is available to children.
Snowberger said the series is a microcosm of a larger problem of what children are exposed to on the internet, particularly social media platforms.
“Unregulated, open sites that allow communication, sometimes inappropriate communication, definitely have some impact. The cyberbullying, students feeling pressure from means that are no longer visible to parents or to staff, I think is a huge issue,” he said.
Snowberger said the district is also taking steps to improve the support available to students in light of suicides in the community by increasing counseling staff.
“When you have a ratio of 1 (counselor) to 500 (students), it’s hard to be anything but reactive, and we really need to make sure we have enough staff that can be proactive,” he said.
To improve the ratio to 1 to 300 in the district’s elementary schools and maintain a ratio 1 to 200 in its middle and high schools, the district is dedicating funding to bring on an additional part-time counselor at Needham, Riverview and Park elementary schools.
The district will increase supportive involvement of workers who formerly fell under San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
“Not only are we expanding counselors, we are maximizing the use of our psych and social workers who will be assigned to our schools,” Snowberger said.
Allred said having the additional resources available could help the district keep kids who might not display overt signs of falling through the cracks.
She said some general warning signs are changes in people, including losing interests in activities they are normally involved in or mood swings.
For children, these may be more behavioral changes, such as acting out, because they don’t have the emotional managing systems that adults do.
Allred said anyone who notices these signs should check in with the individual and, if concerned that the person may harm himself or herself, ask directly if the person is contemplating suicide.
“It is OK to ask that question directly if we really have concerns about somebody,” she said.
Allred added that if people are not comfortable with directly addressing suicide, there are resources available in the community such as Axis that can coach someone through the process.