Rehtaeh Parsons’s extended absences should have acted as a red flag for schools that the teen was suffering from emotional and mental distress and needed help, say two respected educators charged with reviewing how the Halifax school board handled her case.
“They were concerned about it, I think, from a learning perspective,” Debra Pepler, a York University professor and psychologist, said in an interview. “What we would like schools to think about is that in some cases, this kind of chronic absence from school is maybe an indication of mental-health problems, that a young person is really struggling.”
Dr. Pepler and Penny Milton, former CEO of the Canadian Education Association, were appointed by the Nova Scotia government to review the school supports for the teenager, whose tragic death has sparked a number of reviews in the province.
The educators did not assign any blame in their report, which was released Friday. It makes 13 recommendations, all of which the province has accepted, including a call for an independent commission to review the programs and services of the IWK Health Centre and the Capital Health Authority, which is the largest health service provider in the province, “as they relate to the case of Rehtaeh Parsons.”
Ms. Parsons’s parents have raised questions about her treatment at the facility, where she spent five weeks in a unit for young people with acute mental-health problems. They say she was stripped and left naked in her room overnight. On Friday, her mother, Leah Parsons, welcomed the recommendation about the health centre, calling what she believes happened to her daughter “really barbaric.”
“If you want the complete picture of what happened,” added Ms. Milton, “you need to know what happened there, too. That’s all we know. We don’t anything know about what happened there other than from her parents.”
An IWK spokesman said the hospital is reviewing the report and will work with the government on any review.
The 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S., died in April, several days after a suicide attempt. Her family alleges that she was sexually assaulted by four boys at a party in November, 2011, when she was 15. A cellphone picture of the alleged assault was circulated around her school and community. She was also harassed online and, despite changing schools and seeking help, could not escape her tormentors.
High-profile teen suicides like that of Ms. Parsons have sparked national outrage and raised questions about what more can be done for young people dealing with mental illness and bullying.
Dr. Pepler and Ms. Milton said that through their interviews with school officials, they learned of phone calls to Rehtaeh’s home when she missed school. But except for one vice-principal who tried to help, the teen did not receive much support, the report found.
Rehtaeh changed high schools several times, and officials did not share much information about the alleged incident during those transfers. Among the recommendations, the educators call on the school board to guide administrators in determining what informal information should be shared when a student transfers between high schools.
The Halifax Regional School Board said that it needs time to review the recommendations before commenting.
Rehtaeh’s mother said the report is lacking in addressing what the school should do once a police investigation has been launched. Her daughter immediately left Cole Harbour High School when the picture of her alleged sexual assault began circulating. The police did investigate, although no charges were laid.
The report also points out that the high school took “no further action” regarding her allegations and the picture because the police were investigating.
Dr. Pepler said school systems need to address the whole child, not just academic standing. “Young people who have serious mental-health problems need support. They cannot navigate systems themselves,” she said, adding: “Skipping school should be a signal to the school system, it should be a signal to parents, it should be a signal to friends.”