Canada: Highlights And Lessons From The Pepler And Milton "External Review Of The Halifax Regional School Board’s Support Of Rehtaeh Parsons"

The tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons, on April 4, 2013, the Nova Scotia teenager who took her own life after experiencing cyberbullying, continues to attract significant attention from the Nova Scotia government, the police, school communities, and advocates from across the country. On August 6, 2013, the Nova Scotia government proclaimed in force the Cyber-safety Act, which provides victims of cyberbullying with a number of unprecedented rights and protections. Also in August 2013, police charged two 18-year-old males with child pornography offences relating to Rehtaeh Parsons' alleged cyberbullying.

Notably, the government of Nova Scotia has also responded to calls for a more detailed inquiry into some of the systemic factors that are believed to be related to the Parsons case. In April 2013, the government appointed Debra Pepler, a York University professor and psychologist, and Penny Milton, a former deputy minister of the Premier's Advisory Council on Health, Wellbeing and Social Justice in Ontario, to conduct an independent review of the policies and protocols of the Halifax Regional School Board ("HRSB") and associated agencies as they related to Parsons' death.

The Report

On June 14, 2013, Dr. Pepler and Ms. Milton released their review, entitled, "External Review of the Halifax Regional School Board's Support of Rehtaeh Parsons" (the "Report").

The Report reviews Parsons' struggle with mental health issues after an alleged incident involving a number of boys at her school, and her subsequent cyberbullying, in the context of the policies, procedures and support mechanisms that were available at the schools she attended and in her community.

The Report notes that one of the key questions that remains in the aftermath of the Parsons tragedy was why Cole Harbour High School, the school which Parsons was attending at the time of the alleged incident, did not investigate the incident after being made aware of it by police. The police had informed the Cole Harbour principal that some of the boys implicated in the incident were students at Cole Harbour and that Parsons' mother intended to transfer her daughter to Dartmouth High School. The principal was asked to look out for any indications that explicit pictures of Parsons taken during the incident were circulating among students, i.e. the ongoing effects of cyberbullying.

The school, however, took no further action investigating the incident, on the basis that Parsons immediately transferred to another school. Because a police investigation was underway, the school was unsure whether it should take further action because of the criminal investigation.

Notably, the Report does not comment on the appropriateness of the school's approach in the context of the police investigation, but commentators suggest that this remains a live issue.

The Report notes that another key question arising from the Parsons tragedy was whether information regarding the alleged incident and cyberbullying should have been transferred to Dartmouth High School, the school Parsons attended after Cole Harbour. As it was, when Parsons transferred to Dartmouth, no information about the incident or possible cyberbullying was shared with the principal, and Parsons' records did not include any reference to the incident. It was only after the vice-principal of Prince Andrew High School, the high school Parsons attended after Dartmouth, contacted Cole Harbour to learn more about Parsons, that he was told by the Cole Harbour principal that Parsons had been involved in an incident. As such, Parsons drifted from school to school without any review of the incident or Parsons' need for support.

With respect to the sharing of student information, the Report notes that there is a "fine balance between respecting privacy and sharing information to facilitate support within the receiving school". Again, the Report does not make specific comments with respect to the appropriateness of the approach taken by the HRSB not to transfer information of the incident as Parsons transferred from school to school.

The Report does note, however, that Parsons' sparse attendance limited the application of the HRSB's policies on student support and intervention. As the Report notes, a student's absences may indicate the need for intervention. The authors note that school staff must learn from and be sensitive to the "indicators of crisis" in their day-to-day interaction with students, particularly because a crisis may manifest by disruptive behaviour, but could also be internalized and result in poor attendance.

Ultimately, the Report makes thirteen recommendations, along a number of themes, including, emphasizing prevention, involving youth in decisions, building strong relationships, and focusing on mental health. As part of these recommendations, the authors suggest that school boards in particular must:

  • promote the core values of safety and respect in order to prevent bullying, cyberbullying, and sexual aggression by revising school codes of conduct to include opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes by way of restorative practices;
  • clarify the process relating to student transfers between schools, and determine which student information must be shared between schools;
  • survey students about the quality of their relationships within the school community, report the findings in the school boards' accountability reports to the community, and engage and collaborate with parents; and
  • promote mental health literacy and intervention among educators and the school community.

The authors of the Report view adolescent mental health issues as a challenge requiring a collective approach:

We cannot know whether different interventions by educators could have set Rehtaeh on a successful path towards coping with trauma and continuing her education. We cannot know whether different interventions by health-care clinicians could have helped Rehtaeh effectively address her trauma and the potential of her self-harm. We cannot know whether different interventions by the police officers could have shut down any cyberbullying and protected Rehtaeh from its effects.

We do know that it is very difficult to stabilize and support a youth through a mental health crisis. Rehtaeh Parsons' story is one of too many in Nova Scotia and across Canada involving young people who see no way out of their problems. This is why our emphasis has to be upstream on prevention of bullying, cyberbullying, and sexual assault. The problems belong to all of us. The solutions will take determined and long-term efforts on the part of governments, schools, health care, justice, community agencies, students, parents, media, and all citizens.1

While the Report makes a number of general recommendations to promote safety and well- being of students, commentators have noted that the Report does not analyze or comment directly on whether the school board, police and community responses to Parsons' circumstances were in line with policies and procedures, and whether they were appropriate.

Nevertheless, a number of important principles may be taken from the Report, and particularly with respect to school investigations and the sharing of student information in the context of school transfers.

School Investigations

Pursuant to the Ontario Education Act, regardless of whether charges are laid by the police, a principal is responsible for conducting an investigation independent of the police and taking appropriate disciplinary action. Police conduct their own investigations and make decisions with respect to criminal charges based on their own assessment of the circumstances. As such, the purpose and nature of actions taken by the police under the Criminal Code are different from the purpose and nature of actions taken by a school principal.

The Education Actalso sets out provisions regarding the timing of the principal's investigation: when the police have been contacted, the principal should halt his or her review of the incident until either the police investigation is complete or until such time as the school's investigation will not interfere with the police investigation. Beyond complying with their express statutory duties, principals have a degree of discretion and flexibility in the way in which they conduct their investigations.

Furthermore, under the Education Act, a principal is required to suspend a student if he or she believes that a student has engaged in a number of specific activities at school, including bullying, where engaging in the activity will have an impact on the school climate. Specific timelines apply with respect to a principal's decision to expel a suspended student post-investigation. As such, in accordance with the Provincial Model for a Local Police/School Board Protocol, police and schools are required to cooperate regarding their separate investigations, and share information about the progress made in each investigation of the student, whenever possible.

Transfers of Student Information

The record of a student's educational progress through schools in Ontario is kept by way of the Ontario Student Record ("OSR"), which, in addition to report cards, may include "additional information identified as being conducive to the improvement of the instruction of the student".

School boards have discretion with respect to the type of information they deem as being conducive to the improvement of the student, and the purposes for which such information is to be used by schools. As such, a board may develop specific policies mandating the inclusion of any information about a student's involvement in incidents at school, and any specific supports required by a student. Pursuant to the Ontario Student Record Guideline, 2000 a transferring student's OSR will be sent to their new school upon receipt of an official written request from the school.

The Parsons tragedy highlights the importance of ensuring the transfer of a student's complete record, and the taking of a proactive approach to becoming informed about the full range of the transferring student's history and support needs.

Footnote

1 At p. 7.

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