The Rehteah Parsons Case has drawn global attention to the twin horrors of teen sexual assault and re-victimization in cyberspace. Since the 17-year-old Dartmouth teen’s death by suicide on Sunday April 7, 2013, a torrent of outrage and widespread public anger has dominated the media and left Nova Scotian and federal policy-makers scrambling for explanations and policy fixes It is indeed a cruel irony that Rehteah was a Nova Scotian, born and raised in the Canadian province that has blazed the trail in the recent counter-offensive against cyberbullying.
The depth of public outrage left Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and his Education Minister Ramona Jennex completely reeling. It was bad enough that the Cole Harbour High School teen had been sexually-assaulted by four boys , 17 months before , at age 15, without charges being laid. The fact that photos of her alleged rape were posted online and widely circulated were shocking. Hearing that the Cole Harbour HS administration knew of the rape allegation and left it all to the police compounded the problem. To make matters even worse, no one representing the school claimed to have seen or heard anything about the photo posted all over the Internet.
Over the first few days, the Nova Scotia Government expressed its heart-felt sorrow, but then attempted to contain the issue using its standard methods. The Justice Minister Ross Landry, at first, hesitated before calling for a fuller investigation of the whole matter. Education Minister Jennex was caught so much off-guard that she had to summon the Halifax Regional School Board Chair Gin Yee and Superintendent Judy White in for a briefing on what had actually happened. None of the lame explanations offered would survive the maelstrom of intense public scrutiny exerted by glare of the North American media and the pesky Halifax Chronicle Herald newspaper.
The Canadian public demanded action and Nova Scotian authorities reacted with uncharacteristic haste. Spurred by Prime Minister Stephen Harper ‘s public reaction, the threats of Anonymous to go public with the names of the boys, and signs of vigilanteism, the RCMP re-opened the case, investigations were launched, and new laws materialized almost over the weekend.
The provincial response, when it came, was head-spinning. The Education Minister appointed two Ontario consultants, Penny Milton, and Debra Pepler, to conduct an independent review of the HRSB and its response to the case. Premier Dexter accompanied Rehteah Parson’s parents on a pilgrimage to Ottawa seeking changes to the Criminal Code to better combat cyberbullying. After dragging its feet for a year, the N.S. Government introduced a proposed Cyber-Safety Act creating a new police investigation unit and toughening rules, including seizing devices and holding parents responsible for the online conduct of their children.
What does all of this reactive decision-making amount to? A Halifax Chronicle Herald Editorial put it this way: The demand for change is overwhelming. “Whether that change comes from tweaking laws, procedures, responsibilities or other areas — or some combination of the above — what’s important to the public is that whatever measures are taken, they must be effective in helping to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.”
Winning over a skeptical public will not be an easy task. After a spate of recent teen suicides, including the Californian 15-year old Audrie Pott, precipitated by persistent, horrific cyberbullying, the public will wait to judge those efforts by what actually gets accomplished. Closing loopholes in the laws may help, but what about enforcing the laws and discipline codes?
The independent reviews will be judged by what actually gets fixed as a result of them. If Rehtaeh’s case was mishandled by the Halifax police, that needs to be identified and fixed. School officials do have to be held to account for their actions — or rather, lack of action — while one of their own students was allegedly being ceaselessly tormented by her peers. Parents in Nova Scotia and elsewhere affected by such incidents are simply tired of excuses for why cyberbullying is so difficult to stop and do expect tangible results.
One concrete action would be to implement all 85 recommendations of the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying task force that reported a year ago. Chair Wayne MacKay has made no secret of his disappointment with the lack of action, until now, on a number of effective, immediate measures, including tougher enforcement, more guidance counsellors, and teaching digital citizenship in schools. Mental health services must also have the resources they need to effectively help teens cope with personal crises and the stresses of life.
Combating the posting of sexually explicit photos and cyberbullying will require the schools to step up to the challenge and get involved rather than shying away from anything with a hint of controversy. Parents also have a responsibility to teach their children right from wrong. Everyone has a personal responsibility to call out bullying and to take a moral stand when the situation warrants a response.
Will the flurry of new Cyber-Safety laws and school regulations succeed where previous measures have failed? With teen culture saturated with sex, can civility and propriety be restored by laws, rules, and curriculum alone? Why do school officials, in particular, come up so short in stamping out outrageous student conduct and insidious cyberbullying in, around, and after school? Are we simply expecting too much when it’s an ingrained societal problem?