Cyber-bullying claims another sexual assault victim as Nova Scotia teen hangs herself

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor
Rehtaeh Parsons' mom: "She acted on an impulse but I truly in my heart of heart do not feel she meant to kill herself,"

We've somehow entered a dark new place when it comes to cyber-bullying; the social-media humiliation of sexual-assault victims.

We got a taste of the phenomenon recently in the Steubenville, Ohio, case where two high school football players were convicted of recording their assault of a heavily intoxicated teenaged girl and posting the video online.

Admittedly, the boys, who were sent to prison for the attacks, might never have been convicted without the video as evidence. But the unnamed 16-year-old victim's degradation was dreadfully public in a way that previous generations couldn't imagine.

Closer to home, a 16-year-old girl was alleged to have been gang-raped at a rural rave in the Vancouver suburb of Pitt Meadows in 2010, the assault compounded when a bystander posted photos of the assault on Facebook.

Police couldn't amass enough evidence to prosecute the teen's alleged attackers and had to settle for charging 18-year-old Dennis Warrington for posting the photos that led the girl being harassed and bullied at school and on the web.

[ Related: Man sentenced over B.C. rave rape photos ]

Warrington pleaded guilty to distributing obscene material and last month received a conditional discharge that takes effect once he completes 18 months of probation and community service.

Which brings us to Rehtaeh Parsons, who died Sunday as a result of a suicide attempt last week. The 17-year-old Cole Harbour, N.S., girl was allegedly gang-raped by four teens 18 months ago after being fed vodka at a friend's home. She was 15.

Someone took a photo of the attack that was passed around her school and subsequently went viral in the larger community, according to her mother, Leah Parsons, who described her daughter's torment on a Facebook memorial page.

The attack and subsequent labelling of Rehtaeh as a "slut," by the boys ruined her young life, her mother said. She was subjected to a wave of online harassment via texts and Facebook posts.

“People texted her all the time, saying ‘Will you have sex with me?’” she told the Halifax Chronicle Herald. “Girls texting, saying ‘You’re such a slut.’”

"Rehtaeh was suddenly shunned by almost everyone she knew, the harassment was so bad she had to move out of her own community to try to start anew in Halifax," Leah Parsons wrote on her daughter's memorial page.

"She struggled emotionally with depression and anger. Her thoughts of suicide began and fearing for her life, she placed herself in a hospital in an attempt to get help. She stayed there for almost 6 weeks. The bullying continued, her friends were not supportive."

She started smoking pot to deal with her anxiety and anger but struggled to find her way to a normal life. She suffered from mood swings and talked of committing suicide but told her mom "I could never do that to you because you would be devastated."

But last week she locked herself in the bathroom and hanged herself.

"She acted on an impulse but I truly in my heart of heart do not feel she meant to kill herself," her mother wrote. "By the time I broke into the bathroom it was too late."

The boys alleged to have raped Rehtaeh were not charged. The RCMP told CBC News they investigated and consulted with Crown prosecutors but concluded there was not enough evidence to produce convictions.

"We have to deal in facts and not rumours," RCMP Cpl. Scott MacRae said. "We may not be able to go down certain roads because of the tragic circumstance."

The Parsons family was told the photos were not a criminal issue even though Rehtaeh was underage, CBC News said.

Leah Parsons told the Chronicle Herald police could do nothing because "they couldn’t prove who had pressed the photo button on the phone."

Take away the sexual assault and Rehtaeh's story sounds a lot like that of Amanda Todd, the suburban Vancouver teen who committed suicide in the wake of horrendous bullying at school and in cyberspace after being lured into sending a nude photo of herself to an online stalker.

[ Related: Nasty comment on Amanda Todd memorial page gets Ontario man fired ]

It's hard to imagine the strength needed by a young person to withstand that kind of torment, inescapable even if you move away.

The young woman in the Pitt Meadow's case, now 18, went public in hopes of guilting others at the rave to come forward and testify to what they saw. In vain, as it turns out. She, too, had to change schools.

The report of Rehtaeh Parsons' death sparked an outpouring of sympathy on social media.

And this.

Who failed Rehtaeh Parsons? the Chronicle Herald asked it its headline.

Apparently almost everyone she knew and counted on.