The tragic suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, has shocked and saddened the world, but can change arise from the ashes of this tragedy?
There are some hopeful signs from the reaction of the Nova Scotia Government, which has launched a series of reviews of how the case was handled by both the justice and education systems. Resources and a high profile have been assigned to these initiatives, but will there be real action to protect children from future tragedies?
My optimism for change is tempered by my experiences as chairman of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying , which made 85 specific recommendations in its report issued on Feb. 29, 2012. Many of these recommendations have not been implemented by the province. A plan launched by the Nova Scotia Department of Education in February, 2013, sets an excellent framework for change based upon the report, but is weak on concrete and immediate actions to make schools safer places by reducing the worldwide epidemic of cyberbullying.
The challenge to the Nova Scotia government is to take swift and decisive action against cyberbullying.
It is surprising and troubling that the cyberbullying of Rehtaeh did not trigger and immediate discipline investigation by educational authorities. This was cyberbullying that included a photo of her alleged sexual assault being circulated and emails from fellow students – of both genders – blaming and taunting the victim. Lame excuses about not wanting to interfere with the police investigation and not having jurisdiction off premises or after hours, do not provide a valid legal basis for not exercising jurisdiction. Of course, school disciplining proceedings and criminal investigations can and should operate in tandem. Furthermore, school jurisdiction over cyberbullying does extend to off premises and after hours. The Task Force recommendation that this be clarified in the Nova Scotia Education Act was not implemented.
A greater emphasis in the cirriculum on the importance of "digital citizenship" is another recommendation that has not been adequately and urgently pursued. The underlying lack of empathy, respect and student responsibility toward demonstrations of human cruelty must be addressed head on. The dark underbelly of the technological world manifested in cyberbullying cannot be ignored if schools are to be safe places to learn and grow. Parents and schools working together have obligations to address the depersonalizations of human relations in the world of technology and social media and the apparent loss of core values of decency and respect. These issues are addressed in many unimplemented Task Force recommendations.
The Task Force also called for evidence-based interventions to reduce both cyberbullying and its devastating consequences for young victims. The timelines set for the identification of these preventive measures at the school level have passed. These matters should be the number one priority of the Department of Education and in particular, the Anti-Bullying Co-ordinator, appointed on the recommendation of the Task Force.
The time for reviews and studies has passed. No more young students should die before the government acts. Our children deserve schools that are both safe and inclusive. My challenge to Premier Darrel Dexter (who I believe sincerely wants change) and his government is to act quickly on the unimplemented recommendations of the Task Force and take whatever other steps necessary to make the death of Rehtaeh Parsons and those before her, not in vain. We owe these young people, their families and our youth nothing less.
Wayne MacKay is a professor of law at Dalhousie University, Yogis and Keddy chair in human rights law and former chair of Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying