I hope we keep hearing Rehtaeh’s name until we no longer need to

This spring has been the spring of Rehtaeh Parsons, an unlikely celebrity who died of suicide April 4 after being harassed to death. If it hadn’t been for her outspoken parents, who were willing to go to the media with the story of Rehataeh’s victimization, she would have been just another obituary in the paper, a girl who went missing from school, a Facebook page no longer updated.

Yesterday, a report focusing on the failures of the school and health systems was released—a short report, to be fair, and perhaps one that does not go into great detail about the failures of society to protect young assault victims.

For one, I encourage you to go to this link, read the report in full (it’s fairly short), and form your own opinions of the document.

There are a variety of ways to interpret it; this is obvious in the many headlines I’ve seen in the last 24 hours:

  • Rehtaeh Parsons cyberbullying report calls for hospital review (cbc.ca)
  • Rehtaeh Parons report calls for changes to Nova Scotia curriculum (Toronto Sun)
  • Rehtaeh Parsons was out of reach of those who could help her (Ottawa Citizen)
  • Report on Rehtaeh Parsons suicide says her absence from school was missed red flag (Globe and Mail)
  • Rehtaeh Parsons report calls for revised school codes of conduct (Toronto Star)

As someone who works in the school system (especially in a variety of settings), I found the analysis of the education world most interesting. For one, my personal belief is that the education system plays a huge role in helping students achieve academic success as well as healthy human development—obviously a job we share with a student’s caregivers and community.

The report highlighted how the school system failed Rehtaeh, although the failure was not as obvious as I originally thought. For one, Rehtaeh transferred several times, which meant school teams only had a short opportunity to make a different to her. One problem that needs to be addressed is how schools share information with each other. For example, no one called up the transfer school (or vice versa) and flagged Rehtaeh as an at-risk student who needed support. And lots of it.

Furthermore, as a result of the trauma and ensuing mental difficulties, Rehtaeh missed a lot of classes. Her absences meant that she was not always on school property to access the services there. For example, Schools Plus is a wonderful initiative of the province that provides an outreach worker to support students in exploiting community programs like addictions services and sexual health care. (The report calls for more of this incredible program, especially as participants sign one consent form to allow different organizations to share confidential information as needed.)

But the school wasn’t the only institution that failed this young woman.

There’s the IWK hospital, where Rehtaeh stayed for 5 weeks because she was on suicide watch. Clearly, the hospital failed to meet her needs, and may have even made things worse, given the allegation two men stripped her naked because they thought she had a razor on her person. While it’s important to keep patients from harming themselves, such an act may have added to her psychic load and eventually pushed her over the edge to complete suicide, not just threaten it. Obviously a review of the IWK’s policy—and indeed the policy of any medical inpatient unit—needs to be reviewed. Stripping a child or survivor of sexual abuse is hardly conducive to overcoming the trauma.

The report also noted that Rehtaeh’s treatment focused on her drug use rather than her trauma and harassment. Likely, any drug use would have been symptomatic of her pain; treating that would have been ineffective until her harassment and abuse was addressed.

While some have called the report “fluff” (just read the comments to these news stories to get a snapshot of public opinion, or at least the opinions of those who like to comment online), it is a document that is sensitive to what happened, and a good starting place for more analysis.

Obviously, more needs to be done. We need a public discussion of how the justice system deals with “he said/she said” cases or any other accusations of sexual abuse. The justice system is not capable of providing enough justice to women or any other survivors of sexual abuse. Case in point: the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. If sex without consent is illegal, it needs to be enforced.

Another thing that needs to be done: everyone needs to learn about enthusiastic consent, the modern interpretation of “no means no”.

Enthusiastic consent means you don’t engage in sex without enthusiastic consent from your partner. This weeds out cases surrounding alcohol intoxication, as those who are inebriated cannot give enthusiastic consent, especially if they are semi-conscious or vomiting.

Boys especially need to learn about enthusiastic consent to counteract society’s definitions of masculinity. We have defined masculinity within the bounds of patriarchy and power. A man who overpowers a girl and makes her submit to his will is not a rapist, but a hero of many romance novels, a true man. Boys need to learn it is not acceptable to get a girl drunk in order to seduce her. (At this point, I’d like to say that it’s not acceptable for anyone, including girls, to do this; however, society implicitly allows men to use this abuse of power under the whole “boys being boys” mentality. I’d also like to say that many men are above this technique, but it’s important to clarify this idea is out there without enough to dissuade some individuals from doing it.)

As a devout feminist, I believe that society still has a long way to go when it comes to gender roles—for boys as well as girls. They harm us all, and then, when we cry out for help, the system is unable to give us what we need.

When Rehtaeh began to suffer, the schools were unable to keep her in a safe, stable environment—despite strict codes of conduct and positive behaviour matrices (otherwise known as the PEBS system). This meant she was out of reach of guidance counsellors and other school support staff. (The report also highlights how busy these people are, and how difficult it is to get appointments with them.)

Then, when she accessed the mental health system—in this case, through the IWK, although I have no reason to believe it would have been different at another hospital site—it was unable to provide enough healing to make Rehtaeh functional and safe again.

Even if the justice system was unable to get away from its patriarchal underpinning, which does not always take sexual assault seriously, she should have been able to access services to help her heal from her dreadful harassment.

Instead, she slipped through the cracks.

Now that this report is out, we as a society need to look at new ways of helping victims.

As someone who has seen both the school system and the mental health system first hand, I know that success is only possible when you fight for yourself. That means we as a society need to find new ways to help victims fight for themselves—and to protect them until they are ready to do so. Especially when they are so young.

Though people may be tired of hearing about Rehtaeh in the media, she has come to represent all of the victims out there who are struggling. And there are lots. Young, old; men, women; straight, gay, transgender, bisexual.

Until our society comes to take sexual assault and mental health seriously, I hope we never forget her name.

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