Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister reversed his position on the death of a bullied teenager after an outpouring of grief and concern, including an emotional conversation with the Education Minister, whose son was killed three years ago.
Ross Landry said Wednesday that he realized his initial response to Rehtaeh Parson’s death on Sunday was inadequate. He has now asked for a review by police, after first saying he would not second-guess their conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to lay charges in her alleged sexual assault by four boys in November, 2011. And after meeting with Rehtaeh’s mother, Leah Parsons, on Wednesday, Mr. Landry said he is considering legislation that could prevent the distribution of disturbing graphic images such as the ones taken on a cellphone of the alleged assault.
The school board has also been asked to review its lack of response to the incident.
The Rehtaeh Parsons case continued to reverberate, not just across Canada but in major U.S. media as well. A friend of Rehtaeh’s mother launched an online petition calling for the provincial government to hold an inquiry into the police investigation of the alleged assault and the bullying that followed. And the family, who took to social media hours after removing their daughter from life support, continued to press their case to get the justice they believe Rehtaeh was denied – both by police and by a community, they say, that turned its back on the teen.
“My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death,” Glen Canning, the teen’s father, wrote in a statement posted Wednesday. “Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school and the police.”
The 17-year-old was persistently bullied online after the photographs were circulated around the teenager’s Cole Harbour high school and community. Despite moving to another community and switching schools, Rehtaeh could not escape the torment. She died Sunday after she attempted suicide last week.
For Mr. Landry, the decision to reverse course followed conversations with three of his cabinet colleagues – all women – who told him how they felt about the case as mothers. They encouraged him to do more than the status quo.
Education Minister Ramona Jennex told The Globe and Mail Wednesday the conversation she had with Mr. Landry was “extremely difficult for me.” Her 21-year-old son was killed in a car accident three years ago. She, as did Rehtaeh’s mother, had to make the decision to take him off life support.
“I was explaining to Ross that this is a tragedy that only those of us who have lost children can even understand,” Ms. Jennex said. “It’s a physical pain. It’s horrible.” She said she told Mr. Landry that losing a child is “the most horrible thing that can ever happen.”
“I know what is happening inside the head and mind of the mom,” she said.
In addition to ordering her department and the Halifax Regional School Board to review its response to the incident, Ms. Jennex said she has asked them to “see if there is anything that we can do as a system to fill any gaps.”
“Here we have lost another beautiful person,” she said.
Leah Parsons, however, has had little time to eat, let alone grieve. Her partner, Jason Barnes, says they have been overwhelmed by calls and media requests since she posted her Facebook tribute.
Mr. Barnes is a bus driver and is trained in CPR. He tried to save Rehtaeh’s life last week, performing CPR for about five minutes before the paramedics arrived. “I did everything I could in my power,” he said.
On Wednesday, city bus drivers wore pink shirts to oppose bullying and honour Rehtaeh. “They’ve come together like a great family,” he said.
He and Ms. Parsons, who have been together for nearly three years, met with Mr. Landry and emphasized their concerns over the distribution of the picture of Rehtaeh”s alleged sexual assault.
“We believe that it is the picture that really caused the final outcome,” he said. “That’s not saying the assault has any less bearing on the case. It was tragic.”
But, he says, the boys waited several days before they circulated the photo, suggesting that this wasn’t a drunken act but a conscious decision. Ms. Parsons, he says, is hoping for better laws to address the transmission of the kind of pictures that he believes “ruined Rehtaeh’s life.”
Rehtaeh’s mother and Mr. Barnes know the four boys who were involved in the alleged sexual assault. But the Parsons family will not identify them – Mr. Barnes fears that would simply perpetuate more bullying.
In fact, the hacker group Anonymous is now involved in the controversy. According to online posts, it said it had identified two of the four boys and demanded the RCMP take immediate action.
In her death notice, Rehtaeh was described as a “free spirit and a free thinker” with a “compassionate heart.” A funeral service will be held on Saturday. And Mr. Landry implored everyone from politicians to the police to parents to media to “look in the mirror” in the wake of her death.