Leah Parsons, mother of teen suicide victim Rehteah, was withering in her initial response to the latest report on her daughter’s tragic odyssey. ” I read it over quickly and I had to walk away from it because it was just so fluffy,” she told The Chronicle Herald. ” A lot of talk about nothing.” That comment, more than anything else, laid bare one of the biggest challenges facing Canadian education reformers: external reports generated by ‘in-house’ consultants operating under narrow mandates. In this case, the initiators of the Nova Scotia Government review badly misjudged the public mood and demand for concrete action instead of more soothing words.
The two authors of the report, Debra Pepler and Penny Milton, are seasoned educators and nice enough people. The scope of the mandate they were assigned, likely by former Halifax School Board chief Carole Olsen, now Deputy Minister of Education, was so narrowly circumscribed that little should have been expected. When the two consultants were appointed, they signaled as much by saying that the mandate was not to probe into the causes nor to assign responsibility for Rehteah spiralling downward while she was enrolled as a student in the Halifax Regional School Board system. It’s also relevant to note that Milton is the ultimate “insider” and was CEO of the Canadian Education Association when Olsen served as its President a few years ago.
The Milton-Pepler report got a rough ride at the Media Conference announcement on June 14, 2013, at One Government Place in Halifax. The incredibly thin, 31-page report, entitled “External Review of the Halifax Regional School Board’s Support of Rehteah Parsons,” may signal a new low in public accountability for educational decision-making. With the eyes of the world on them, the two authors served up an incredible menu of mush. ” The educators responsible did the right things,” Milton said, somewhat hesitantly. Then Dr. Pepler added: “This was a problem with systems.”
Close observers of the Nova Scotia scene were quick to trash the entire report. The highly respected Chair of Nova Scotia’s 2011-12 Bullying and Cyberbullying Task Force, Dr. Wayne MacKay, described it as “disappointing’ when the public has been demanding “concrete actions” not more studies. News columnist Marilla Stephenson of The Chronicle Herald summed up the response, dismissing it as “a lightweight, highly frustrating reinforcement of how a high-functioning public school board might work best under idea circumstances.” Surveying the report and its skimpy 6-page list of mostly generalized recommendations, she wondered why the government paid as much ass $70,000 to secure such a fluffy report.
The Milton-Pepler report documents, in clinical fashion, just how Rehteah fell apart after the “rape” and posting of the horrible picture of her in an intoxicated state. It’s clear that her tragic story involves far more than wild partying and cyberbullying and cuts to the root of today’s teen culture and life withing that “tribe” ouside the scrutiny of responsible adults.
Where the report completely fails, however, is in explaining how a Cole Harbour teen with such problems could be missed by school officials while transferring from one high school to another for almost two years. From the fateful house party in the November 2011 until June 2012, she attended four different HRSB high schools, a period of 7 months. She was then refused re-admission to her home school, Cole Harbour District High School, and ended up back at Prince Arthur HS for a second time, shortly before taking her own life. Her downward spiral was marked by heavy drug and alcohol use, frequent school absenteeism, and encounters with the Halifax IWK teen mental health clinic and the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.
The Milton-Pepler review proposed 13 rather vague recommendationsi that satisfied few. News media unfamiliar with edu-babble were dumfounded by the airy tone and weak kneed approach to such an urgent matter. After Wayne Mackay’s authoritative bullying report, it was hard to stomach the recommendations including addressing the school system’s bullying issues, better sharing of student information among schools, more social issues-based curriculum, and reducing the “silos” preventing branches of government from working together. While averse to casting blame in the education system, the two educators pointed the finger at the IWK for its role in providing teen mental health services.
The report’s authors, based in Toronto, completely missed the significance of a previous Nova Scotia teen tragedy, namely that of Archie Billard, a delinquent teen who underwent a similar downward spiral nine years earlier. It was shocking that external experts seemed unaware of the 2006 Justice Merlin Nunn report and the provincial Child and Youth Strategy establish ed to prevent such cases from happening again. One of the Child and Youth Strategy programs, SchoolsPlus, was ripped out-of-context and presented as a “potential solution.” No one could explain why Rehteah was allowed to spin “out of control” like Archie with 16 SchoolsPlus sites in operation in the local school system.
What are the lessons to be learned from this sad example of educational policy research and advocacy? How could the Nova Scotia Government completely misread the public mood and sense of urgency, especially after Wayne MacKay’s repeated appeals for less talk for more action? Should senior educational administrators and their cronies be entrusted to investigate the system that sustains them? When, in heaven’s name, will we begin to see real action to minimize the chances of this happening over and over again? Is it time to clean house and get to the bottom of what’s really going on inside the system?