This story touches on topics of a very sensitive nature but I think it’s more important than ever to keep it in our hearts and…
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This story touches on topics of a very sensitive nature but I think it’s more important than ever to keep it in our hearts and…
This story touches on topics of a very sensitive nature but I think it’s more important than ever to keep it in our hearts and in our minds. Right off the bat here, I need to give you a trigger warning, because the story I’m talking about involves sexual assault and suicide.
This is the story of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old girl from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, who experienced something that no one should ever have to go through. An experience that would haunt her so deeply that she felt there was no other way to escape the pain than to take her own life. Her story is not only heartbreaking but disturbing, uncomfortable — and a huge warning to all parents that we need better protection for our children and more accountability of our parenting. After reading, if you have teenagers or pre-teens at home, maybe it’s time to open a dialogue with them about their own experiences because knowing what’s going on in their lives is half the battle. It’s only then that we can take action as necessary.
Rehtaeh Parsons, who also went by Reh, did not live a long life — but she did leave a legacy behind. She made a huge impact on everyone she met, in the 17 years she walked this planet.
Rehtaeh was born on December 9, 1995, to her parents Glen Canning and Leah Parsons. The couple had actually broken up before she was born, but they did an incredible job of co-parenting and ensuring she knew she had the love and support from both parents. Rehtaeh was named after her mother’s niece Heather — as Rehtaeh was Heather spelled backward. Leah Parsons had fallen in love with the name when she was only 13 years old, way before she was pregnant, and just knew that if she were to have a daughter, she would name her Rehtaeh. The name was as unique and beautiful as Reh would be, so it was quite fitting.
Growing up Rehtaeh lived full time with her mother Leah in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, along with her two half-sisters — but her father lived close by so she would spend a ton of time with him too. Although not traditional, they were still a very close family.
As a little girl, Reh was quiet and shy — she loved anything and everything to do with nature, science, and animals. She was always a very cautious child, aware of her surroundings — she was sensitive and she had so much empathy for those around her. For animals, for humans, for her friends and family. She loved deeply and she felt deeply.
Her mother at times worried that she might not be tough enough for this harsh world. But Reh was equally as strong-headed, resilient, and brave.
When she was 15 years old Reh started grade 10 at Cole Harbour District High School and in the beginning, she really thrived. She was a straight-A student, she made friends very quicky and she was excited about the future. In her first month at school, on September 26th, 2011, she wrote the following journal entry:
“My favorite part of the year is learning new things. I really enjoy my visual arts class and English. I love making new friends and meeting new people. High school, for me, means learning to drive, making money, turning six-teen and planning for the rest of my life. I am very much looking forward to the rest of high school.” (source)
Reh had her own cell phone and like most teens her age, she was constantly on it. Texting friends, making plans — but her parents were just happy to see her breaking out of her shell a bit. Because like I said, while she was kind and friendly, she was also very shy and reserved. That is until you got to know her and she felt comfortable sharing more of herself. I find I’m very much the same way, now — but even more so in high school. I had a small network of friends and unless I felt comfortable with you, I kept mostly to myself.
One of Reh’s friends was a young lady named Lucy, with who she went to school. One evening in November of 2011, Reh asked if she could go to a sleepover at Lucy’s house and her mother said that would be fine but she wanted to speak with Lucy’s mother first to confirm the plans. Leah called Lucy’s mother and everything checked out. Kudos to Leah for taking a minute to ensure that this was actually the plan and the parents were aware. But neither mother realized that Lucy and Reh had plans that evening to go to the home of a boy from school. The house was located in Eastern Passage, about 20 minutes away from where Reh lived by car. It was a fairly small gathering with four boys, and Lucy and Reh — and these were boys that they had hung out with before.
The teens decided to do shots of straight-up vodka — and a lot of them. One of the boys there said that he had taken around 11 shots himself and that Reh had 8 shots of vodka. For a 15-year-old girl, who weighs maybe 100lbs soaking weight, this is a lot more alcohol than one can handle. It hit her hard. There are a few versions of events of what would happen in the home that evening, and we will get to that later, but what we do know is that the teens were severely intoxicated and engaging in sexual activity. The following morning, Reh wakes up in the spare room of the boy’s home and she’s pretty much alone. No sign of her friend Lucy anywhere — so she has to make her own way back home to Cole Harbour.
Reh would later say that the events that happened that night were really fuzzy because she had been very intoxicated. Her mother noted that she was acting a bit “off” when she arrived home, but she didn’t know the extent of what might be troubling her.
Now a few days pass and Rehteah begins to notice that there’s a weird vibe at school. People are treating her differently and whispering behind her back. Her friend Lucy, with who she had gone to the party, wasn’t speaking to her. And then she finds out why. There was a very disgusting and compromising photo of her being shared around school and on social media. The photo was taken at the boy’s house. It shows her naked from the waist down, with her head out a window because she is vomiting. There is a boy standing behind her, having sex with her — and he’s smiling at the camera giving a thumbs up. Her classmates are sharing this photo around and calling her horrible names. As if high school isn’t hard enough, I cannot imagine having such a graphic photo being seen by everyone in your school and then being used as a way to bully and berate you. Reh is devastated.
And then she gets a text message from the boy in the photo who is pictured standing behind her in this vulnerable moment, smiling and giving a thumbs up. The message says, “r u ok with what happened?” and not really knowing how to respond, Reh plays it off with a response that says, “lol it’s cool”. There is literally no way. Just no way. That it’s cool. It would never be cool or okay for this to happen to anyone. But she doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it, because things are bad enough as is. She has no idea that this response she gave would be used against her later.
Reh leaves school that day in tears. When Leah, Reh’s mom, arrives home from work later that day, she finds her sitting down, rocking back and forth crying. Leah is able to get Reh to open up about what is happening — thankfully they have this really close open-communication type relationship. Reh tells her about the photo and what she can remember from the night the photo was taken. She says she is beginning to remember the events of the night: there were a few different boys and one came up behind her and was breathing on her neck while she was throwing up out the window — and he raped her. And now there is a photo of that very thing, being passed around her high school in the community she had grown up in since she was five years old.
Leah comforts her daughter, listening to the details of what happened and reminding her daughter that she did absolutely nothing to deserve this. Leah also wants consequences brought forward for the boys who did this and together they go into the police station to file a report the following day. She tells police about the boy and the assault, how she was far too intoxicated to consent, and the photo that was being passed around. They take down the details and let her know they will follow up.
But in the meantime, Rehtaeh has to continue to try to carry on, to go to school — all the while the bullying, the gossip, the rumors continue to swirl. She goes from being a bubbly teenager to anxious and depressed. All of her friends have cut her off completely for fear of being associated with her. And Cole Harbour is a SMALL COMMUNITY. Gossip spread fast. Everyone knows everyone else — and everyone knows each other’s business. It was really difficult for Reh to get up each morning and continue to carry on, while she felt like a social pariah.
Her father Glen really struggled with what to do when he learned what had happened to his daughter. I’m pretty sure most fathers would have that knee-jerk reaction to show up at the boy’s door and kick their ass. But of course, you can’t actually do that — it doesn’t help anything. So Glen asks Reh what he can do to help her, to support her — and she tells him to just keep being her dad because when she is with him everything feels normal.
It wasn’t long before Leah gets a call from the police unit in charge of the investigation and they ask Reh to come back in and make another statement. This time she must do it alone, without her mother, and it’s videotaped. They question her for hours and at one point they ask her about the text exchange with the boy from the photo, where she says “lol it’s cool”. They asked her to clarify what she meant by that because it contradicted her statement that she was assaulted. Rehtaeh remains firm in her statements and when the interview is over they tell her they’ll follow up with any updates.
And while they believed that an investigation was ongoing, the bullying and the harassment of Rehtaeh did not let up. Approximately four months after the alleged sexual assault, she was admitted to the IWK Health Centre Halifax’s children’s hospital because she was suicidal and needed help with her mental help. She would stay six weeks in psychiatric care and Reh would allege that during her stay she had been strip-searched by two male workers. They were looking for razors and anything else she might be able to hurt herself. The hospital has denied these claims, but can you imagine how traumatic it would be to have to strip down in front of two men while you’re in treatment for suicidal tendencies due to being assaulted?
When she was released from psychiatric care, Reh would switch schools. Actually — Reh would switch schools four times in a year and a half. From her original high school Cole Harbour — over to Prince Andrew High in Dartmouth. This is where she met her best friend Bryony Jollimore. The two were almost immediate friends — laughing over the fact that they both had very unique names. They had a lot in common and became inseparable — however, it wasn’t long until that photo would get passed along to her new school. One day, a group of girls’ circled Rehtaeh and Bryony, they called Reh a slut and told her that they had seen the photos. One girl asked if she liked it or if she got paid for the photo. It felt like she would never be able to escape the photo, the rumors, the bullying — it was all on social media, which would be shared across multiple networks of teens all over the Halifax area.
She would switch schools again — this time to Citadel High School in Halifax, but then she would return to Prince Andrew in February 2013. Constantly running from the events of what had happened that evening and the photo that documented it all. As much as her mother tried to shield her and fix things, Leah had to watch her daughter suffer every day. And while the bullying continued, there was no progress being made on the legal case.
It took 12 months since the initial report for an update in the case. But it was not what they had hoped for. The head of the special investigations unit called Leah and told her that there was not going to be any charges laid for child pornography or sexual assault. The “lol it’s cool” text that Reh had responded with is used against her, suggesting that it constitutes consent. Police also say there is insufficient evidence of an assault, other than Reh’s word. As for the child pornography charges, her face wasn’t in the photo — so while everyone knew it was Reh in the picture, there could be no charges brought forward.
So I have not seen the photo. I don’t know if it’s on Google but I sure as hell hope not. I was not going to go looking for it, because to me that feels like violating Rehtaeh all over again. But from the description of what was in the photo, I can’t understand why a sexual assault charge would not be brought forward. Her head is out the window — she’s throwing up because she has drunk so much alcohol. A severely intoxicated person cannot consent.
But it seems like this is the end of the legal road for Reh. And as difficult as it is, Reh really tries to keep moving forward and to get back on her feet. It’s around March 2013, about a year and a half since the photo was taken and things seem to be improving in terms of Reh’s overall mood and disposition. She even has a boyfriend that she really likes. But we don’t always know what is really going on in someone’s head. Outwardly they may be smiling and generally happy, but inside they might be struggling, and unfortunately, this seemed to be the case with Reh.
In April 2013, one evening Leah was in bed while Rehtaeh was out with a couple of her friends. Suddenly there is a knock on the door, and it’s one of Reh’s friends who says Reh is upset and has locked herself in the bathroom. Her mom goes to try to see if she can calm her down and get her to come out. She knocks on the door calling her name but no one is answering. She feels the weight on the door and thinks that Reh is pushing against the door to keep her from coming in. Finally her mother gets the door open — and there is Reh. She had hung herself in the bathroom. She is barely breathing but alive — and is rushed to the hospital and put on life support. At first her family is hopeful that she’ll pull through, but Rehtaeh’s body begins to shut down and on April 7th her parents make the difficult decision to take her off of life support. Rehtaeh has lost her battle with depression.
Her family is devastated — and just angry that nothing more was done with regards to the alleged sexual assault, the intimate photo that was taken, and the cyberbullying and harassment — all of which contributed to the steep decline in her mental health.
On April 8th, the day after Reh has died, Leah turns to Facebook to fight for justice for her daughter — she was determined to be her voice now that Reh could no longer speak for herself. She created a memorial page for Rehtaeh and put up a post on Facebook. It went viral.
When the local community read about what had happened to Rehtaeh and how the boys were never charged, there was a wave of shock and anger. There were massive protests — people demanding justice for Reh. Holding signs with her photo. Crying. Wanting something to be done to bring about justice for her.
And then — Anonymous picked up the story. Yes Anonymous, the online hacker vigilante group. And they put out their own statement. They demanded that the police charge the boys or else they were going to publicly release their names.
While much of the small community knew the names of the boys involved, there was a publication ban because they were minors at the time. But the police remained firm that they don’t have any evidence to support a charge and they aren’t going to be opening the investigation again.
However, around this time, Reh’s mother Leah receives a text message from the boy in the photo. He says he wants to explain things from his side of the story. He recalls the events from his perspective that evening. It’s not an apology — just an explanation. But one thing he does admit is that it is Rehtaeh in the photo. And now Leah has it in writing that it is her in the photo — remember, the police were not going to bring about child pornography charges because you couldn’t see Rehtaeh’s face in the photo. Now she had the proof.
And a few months later, on Aug. 8th, two men, who were now 18-years-old, were charged in the case. One is charged with two counts of distributing child pornography and the other is charged with making and distributing child pornography. However, they say there is insufficient evidence for a rape charge. Both boys are found guilty of the child pornography charges, but neither of them faced jailed time. And Rehaeh’s mother supported this decision.
When asked about how she felt with the sentencing, she said:
“There is nothing that will bring my daughter back. I cant [sic] go back in time so what is justice? A jail cell? What would jail do to help the situation?” (Source)
And it’s true — at that point, I don’t think that jail time would have done anything except turn the two young men into criminals by the time they were released. While their names have never been publicly released — the whole community knows who they are. And in my opinion, that might even be worse.
But while a large part of the community supported Reh and was happy that these charges, although too damn late, were brought forward — there were still many that supported the boys, while continuing to slut shame Rehtaeh. Was Reh perfect? No, not by any means. A lot of her social media referred to drug and alcohol use. There was a Facebook account created called “REAL Rehtaeh Parsons”, where the profile picture was of Reh blowing smoke out of her mouth and holding a joint. People were using any reason ay all to disparage her, even in death.
But I don’t understand how anyone can dispute that the photo taken of her was absolutely disgusting — and that a woman vomiting out a window cannot consent to sex.
There was an internal review of how the case was handled by the Halifax police, and here are a few things they found wrong (Source).
In the first interview with Rehtaeh, the proper protocol was not followed. The officer “unnecessarily interviewed her at length.” and a social worker should have been present. Unfortunately, this meant that Reh had to be interviewed at length a second time.
The investigation failed to address the cyberbullying Rehteh experienced. Police were unsuccessful in intervening to stop the circulation of the photo — when really they could have gotten a search warrant to obtain the photo from the boys’ phones.
The school that Rehtaeh attended apparently thwarted attempts by police to question the students, and the crown gave the police improper advice regarding the potential of child pornography charges. They were the ones that said no charges could be brought forward because you couldn’t see her face, and this is simply not true.
There were a lot of failures here. A lot of systems that really let Rehtaeh Parsons down. The school did not try to protect her or “manage” the photo distribution and the police were slow to do much of anything. What those boys did to her, what the bullies did, and the failings of these institutions are the reason Rehtaeh is no longer here today. But her mother Leah has refused to let her daughter’s legacy go down like that.
She has created the Rehtaeh Parsons Society, which is a non-profit society focused on wellness through the education, awareness and prevention of sexualized violence and cyber-abuse. They perform outreach to schools and youth groups, they also support individuals struggling emotionally from the trauma of sexualized violence and cyber-harassment. All in Rehtaeh’s name.
Remember at the beginning of tonight’s story — I told you that there were varying versions of events from the night the photo was taken? Well, there were. The friend that Reh went to the boy’s house with — her friend Lucy, well Lucy had told the police that she liked one of the boys there, and she told Reh not to do anything with him because she liked him. According to her, she got up to go for a smoke and when she came back she saw Reh in the same act as in the photo. She got angry at her and left her at the party. When she returned home without Rehtaeh, her mother demanded that she go back and get her — because she was supposed to seep there that night. Lucy said she went back to the house, but Reh wouldn’t get up — so she left her there. Rehtaeh slept in the spare bedroom at the home. According to the boy that lived there, he didn’t want her sleeping in bed that night in case she threw up. (Source)
The boy who posed for the photo always maintained that it was consensual. Even when he was in court for those child pornography charges, he said:
“I will not live with the guilt of someone passing away, but I will live with the guilt of sending the picture.I have pled (sic) guilty to distributing child pornography, not a sexual assault. “I never played a part in the bullying [of Rehtaeh], nor would I.” (Source)
According to him, at no time did he believe she was so drunk she didn’t know what she was doing or that she wasn’t consenting.
Which, in my opinion, might be believable if we didn’t have photo proof that she was vomiting out the window because she was so intoxicated. And if he hadn’t admitted he had her sleep alone in the spare room because he didn’t want her vomiting in his bed.
Christie Blatchford from the National Post is the one that conducted the interview where this guy shares his version of events. Personally, I believe the proof is in that photo, and if they aren’t willing to acknowledge that, then there’s really no more to know.
I know this case was a bit different than the usual stories I cover, but I felt it was really important. Things like this have unfortunately always happened, but with the internet and social media now being what it is, it adds this extra layer of trauma one might experience. Talk to your teens. Keep the dialogue open. Monitor what they’re doing. Make sure your boys understand consent and make sure your girls stay safe.
Nikki Young is the host of the international true crime podcast, Serial Napper. Each episode features a different true crime story, told succinctly the way it happened. Serial Napper is available on Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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