Posted here: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/04/10/chris-selley-on-rehtaeh-parsons-how-not-to-solve-the-bullying-problem/
As if contemplating a tormented child taking her own life isn’t horrible enough, we must now live with online blame-mobs grabbing hold of a narrative and demanding justice — and not necessarily in a courtroom. We are seeing it again this week in the sad case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia 17-year-old who killed herself last week, her mother Leah Parson claims, after being raped and bullied relentlessly by peers over photographs of the assault.
On Facebook, in comment sections and on blogs, people are calling for Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists and bullies to be outed, named and shamed (only without using the word “alleged”). Some want Anonymous — which fingered the wrong alleged culprits after British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd committed suicide in October — to get in on the act. What could go wrong, right?
Plenty. Being accused of rape is a hell of a stigma nowadays, and rightly so. That’s why we leave such accusations to the professionals.
The police say they investigated Rehtaeh’s allegations, but found insufficient evidence to lay charges. Ms. Parsons accuses the police of neglecting to interview the accused until “much, much later.” And the police should answer for that, if it’s true. But when cops screw up, cases fall apart. Neither vigilantism nor compromising the usual standards by which justice is done is an appropriate remedy.
Nova Scotia seems to be wavering. On Tuesday, Justice Minister Ross Landry appropriately called for any as-yet silent witnesses to come forward, but stressed that “we can’t second-guess every investigation.” Mere hours later he said he was “committed to exploring the mechanisms that exist to review the actions of all relevant authorities to ensure the system is always working to the best of its ability, in pursuit of justice.” That sounds like a politician, not a lawyer.
In her tremendous new book about bullying, Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon relates the story of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts 15-year-old who committed suicide in 2010 after an intense bout of high-school drama. It was nothing you wouldn’t expect a healthy child to pull through, and indeed Phoebe suffered from clinical depression (the “reddest red flag for suicide,” as Ms. Bazelon puts it). But the media reduced the narrative to simple “bullycide” — “the paradigmatic parable of teenage evil.”
Elected prosecutors charged six students with a dizzying range of offences: Assault with a deadly weapon for one who threw a pop can at Phoebe; statutory rape for two older teenagers who had consensual sex with her; a civil rights violation for one who called Phoebe an “Irish slut”; and causing bodily injury, i.e., Phoebe’s death. There was nothing to support this. It was madness, and a sane prosecutor eventually all but abandoned the cases. But in the meantime, worse than nothing was accomplished.
Back in Nova Scotia, people want to know why the police won’t pursue child pornography offences against those who took, distributed and possess photos of Rehtaeh’s alleged assault. That does seem to be an open-and-shut case. But we don’t know what the pictures show. There must be thousands of photos on Canadian teenagers’ cell phones that would meet the legal definition of child pornography. Should we haul them all into court, convict them, slap them with sex-offender designations for what unfortunately seems to have become fairly routine adolescent behaviour?
Or should we just charge these four boys in Nova Scotia, because we can’t prove they did anything else wrong, and a troubled teenager committed suicide, and Facebook demands justice? I’m deeply uncomfortable with that, first because we don’t have all sides of the story and second because, as Ms. Bazelon notes in her book, we seem to hold children to a higher standard than adults on these matters despite their fractious neurochemistry.
“With adults, we don’t pick one problem — divorce, financial ruin — and say that’s why someone attempted or completed a suicide,” an anti-bullying instructor tells Ms. Bazelon. “We don’t say divorcecide. So why should we do that with a child?”
I understand completely why these stories freak people out. The instinct to protect children from violence and injustice is universal … only it isn’t. When it comes to incidents like this, as Ms. Bazelon writes, “we lose sight of our own standard for giving kids a second chance. Instead, we indulge our primal urge for revenge.” That can’t be healthy.