Why did Rehtaeh Parsons need to leave her high school? That is the first question that needs to be asked in any public review of how the Halifax Regional School Board did or did not support the 17-year-old who committed suicide after allegedly being sexually assaulted by four boys and then cyberbullied with the circulation of an image or images from the assault.
The first time that the principal at Cole Harbour High School knew about what had happened to the girl was in a phone call from police saying that she was allegedly a victim of sexual assault, that some of the suspects were students at Cole Harbour High, and that her mother had decided she should go to another school, Dartmouth High. (The information is in a provincially commissioned review of the school board’s support of Rehtaeh, released on Friday by bullying expert Debra Pepler and educator Penny Milton.)
But hold on. Did the principal make attempts to contact the mother, to talk it through, to find out if the girl should or would stay? Shouldn’t the suspects have to leave, rather than the alleged victim, while the matter is under investigation? If anyone asked those questions, the report doesn’t tell us.
The second question that needs to be asked is why the principal at the school she moved to, Dartmouth, did not inquire from the principal at Cole Harbour about the new student. Rehtaeh transferred over without anyone knowing of her special needs. How could the school support her without knowing her?
The third question arises from what happened when she tried to get back into Cole Harbour. By this time she had been at four high schools in a year and a half. She had been hospitalized for psychiatric care for five weeks because she was suicidal. And Cole Harbour turned her away, not because attending would not be in her best interests but, the review tells us, because of a board policy against returning to one’s home-area school.
Could anything be more absurd and cruel in these circumstances? As if all sorts of children do not have mothers and fathers living in different districts, and needing a place to fall back on when things go awry.
We don’t know why the alleged sexual assault and cyberbullying did not result in charges. We don’t know why the hospital rejected the father’s request for a day treatment program for Rehtaeh. But we do know that the schools did not always ask the right questions and respond with humanity.