The story is all too familiar: accusations of sexual violence, public shaming, and relentless bullying followed by the tragic end of a young life full of promise. Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia teenager, hanged herself in early April more than a year after a photo from her alleged 2011 rape circulated through her high school and community. Just as we did after the suicides of high school students Amanda Todd and Audrie Pott, we find ourselves asking what could have been done differently to prevent Rehtaeh’s death at 17. Did she get the help that she needed? Did her family?
Now, her family members are asking questions of their own. In an interview with The Toronto Star, her mother’s longtime boyfriend said: “The justice system failed us completely. The education system didn’t do much of anything.” Rehtaeh’s father wrote on his website: "[S]he was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, in her school, and the police.”
Is it fair to hold her school accountable for her death?
A review of Halifax school board policy requested by Nova Scotia Minister of Education Ramona Jennex found that Rehtaeh’s lengthy absences from school should have been cause for concern by school officials, although reviewers did not lay blame for the girl’s death on the schools.
Schools have a responsibility not only to help students learn, but also to keep them safe, physically and emotionally, while they are in our care."
We know, according to news reports, that she confided in at least one teacher, and that peers were well aware of the cyberbullying leading up to her suicide. We also know that she was getting help. She switched schools, and the CTV television network reported that she checked herself into a hospital for six weeks to deal with depression and suicidal thoughts. Sadly, even a loving and proactive family and the best mental-health care cannot erase all pain and do not guarantee a happy ending.
But all of us in the education community need to ask ourselves if we are doing everything possible to prevent the toxic and damaging social environments that lead to tragedies like Rehtaeh’s. Her mother reports that she was shunned, bullied, and humiliated by classmates as a picture spread through social media. Did teachers and school staff members witness bullying in the classroom, the lunchroom, and the hallways? If they did, what was done to address the issue not only with Rehtaeh, but also with those perpetrating the bullying?
Do we really know what’s going on with our kids, on and off school grounds? Recent events have made it all too clear that the answer is often no. This year’s trial in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two high school football players were found guilty of raping an unconscious girl and carrying her from party to party, highlights just how disconnected adults in the community were from the culture of substance abuse and sexual assault happening right under their noses.
This kind of disconnect, whether we are talking about bullying, substance abuse, or sexual assault, is unacceptable. Obviously, parents have the primary responsibility for their children’s well-being. But teachers and other staff members know much more about what is happening with kids than those school employees ever report. We know which kids are showing up hung over, which kids hide in the library to avoid the lunchroom, which kids are suddenly ostracized from a group they were once part of. We observe kids together at school in ways that parents never can, and often have them in our care for more of their waking hours than their families do.
We can say it’s not our job, or not our business. But schools have a responsibility not only to help students learn, but also to keep them safe, physically and emotionally, while they are in our care. If we are not addressing the culture of bullying and public shaming, if we are not doing everything we can to teach young people how to treat each other kindly and civilly, if we are ignoring social and emotional crises unfolding before our eyes, we are failing Rehtaeh and thousands like her.
There are things that we can do. We can end the culture of silence and encourage all school staff members to speak up when they notice something happening with a child. We can train them better in what to look for, whom they should talk to if they see a problem, and what resources are available for students at risk for bullying (as victims or perpetrators), violence, or suicide. And we can make sure we have systems in place to make identification, referral, and monitoring of students in crisis easy and automatic so no child slips through the cracks.
We cannot ease every heartache, prevent every act of violence, or ensure that our young people will always act with the best judgment. But we can do a better job of paying attention and addressing the issues we observe every day. We are the adults, and it is our job to build a culture in our schools and our communities that keeps every one of our students safe. This is a responsibility we cannot abdicate. We owe Rehtaeh, and others like her, better than that.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Schools Can—and Must—Do More About Bullying, Violence, and Suicide