In the midst of her despair, Leah Parsons received an e-mail on Tuesday. It was from a boy – one of the four alleged to have sexually assaulted her daughter.
“If you don’t mind, I would like to have a one-on-one conversation with you regarding your daughter,” she says the boy wrote.
“I honestly think it’s important we talk. I’m very upset about this situation.”
Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh had attempted suicide the previous week, and died two days earlier after being taken off life support.
Then, to help cope with her grief, Ms. Parsons posted a tribute page on Facebook, explaining that her daughter also had been bullied relentlessly, even by friends, after a graphic picture of the alleged attack had circulated on the Internet.
The girl never recovered from this, her mother says. And yet, as much she wants justice for what happened, she won’t disclose who she thinks the boys are.
Not that it’s a big secret.
Cole Harbour, the Halifax suburb where she lives, is a community of 25,000 – about 1,000 of whom are students at the high school Rehtaeh attended and where, it seems, a lot of people know the boys’ identities.
But Ms. Parsons and her partner, Jason Barnes, are concerned about the possibility of vigilante justice. They don’t want a repeat of the bullying.
A massive outpouring
Rehtaeh’s story has triggered outrage across the country and around the world, as well as a national conversation about bullying and the perils of growing up in a digital age.
The Prime Minister has weighed in, the Nova Scotia government is reviewing its procedures, its justice minister is considering legislation governing the distribution of graphic images, and on Friday, the police announced that, after days of intense public pressure, they have received new information and are reopening the investigation.
There has been a vigil, and the funeral service Saturday is expected to be overflowing with mourners.
From all appearances, Rehtaeh was getting her life back together. There was a new boyfriend, who was helping her look for a job and encouraging her to go to school. Having left home to escape constant scrutiny, she had moved back and was reconnecting with old friends.
There was a memorable trip about a month ago to a tattoo parlour with girlfriends. She loved tattoos and that day had one depicting birds and feathers extended up her rib cage to her neck.
“A tattoo on your ribs … that hurts,” says friend Ashley MacLean, 16.The others girls were impressed with Rehtaeh’s stoicism – not a flinch or a grimace – but she was in pain.
The root of the problem
It started one weekend in November, 2011, at the home of a family friend in Eastern Passage, another Halifax community. Rehtaeh had gone with another girl. There were four boys, two of them brothers, and they drank vodka. An adult was there but asleep, and Rehtaeh’s friend had left.
One of the boys snapped a picture on his mobile phone of Rehtaeh vomiting while allegedly being assaulted. The photo was circulated, portraying her as being promiscuous, and soon “everyone had it,” her mother says.
Her uncle, Michael Parsons, says she started receiving crude text messages from boys propositioning her. “She was so hurt by what happened.”
She and her mother went to police, and she gave a statement. But her mother says the investigation triggered even more bullying – and her friends turned against her.
Policing in Eastern Passage is an RCMP responsibility, but the case was handled by a joint squad, the Integrated Sexual Assault Investigation Team. The lead investigator was a Halifax Regional Police officer.
Ms. Parsons says she was disappointed that officials at Cole Harbour District High School did nothing to help.
Doug Hadley, a spokesman for the Halifax Regional School Board, says the school didn’t want to interfere with the investigation. “The police explained that there may be a photo,” he explains, “but no one at the school ever saw a photo or heard of anyone in possession of a photo.”
Only when Rehtaeh left school a few days later did school officials met with her mother.
“That was the first time that they heard that there was a concern. It wasn’t that they heard a concern and didn’t investigate, they didn’t hear the concern until after she had left the school,” Mr. Hadley said.
Rehteah never returned to class; she broke down, her mother says.
Fearing she might harm herself, her parents admitted her to hospital and she spent six weeks there. She went to live with father in Halifax, where she attended Citadel High School and made new friends.
For a few months, she lived with the family of one of those friends, whose mother recalls, “She was a cute kid … she was in a good space at my house.”