The details of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons’ death shook the internet on Tuesday. Parsons’ mother alleges her daughter was struggling with depression after she was gang-raped by four boys, became the target of intense victim-blaming bullying, and the investigation into her assault was grossly mishandled by law enforcement. Now, new troubling details are emerging about the alleged assault and the culture of the community that turned a blind eye to Parsons’ plight.
The picture of Parsons’ alleged assault that “spread like wildfire” among students showed one of the assailants giving a “thumbs-up with a big smile.” The school that Parsons attended at the time of the alleged sexual assault was aware of the allegations, but administrators did not probe the incident, even after the photo was seen by “most students” at Parsons’ high school. That left students to piece together the incident on their own — and potentially fueled the high school gossip mill that led many of Parsons’ classmates to place the blame on her, in a classic example of the additional trauma that rape culture can inflict on victims.
The school reportedly did not even make an announcement Monday or Tuesday about her death. But despite the school’s silence, it appears some students at the school were aware not only of Parsons’ ordeal, but that it wasn’t an isolated incident in the community:
Not everyone who saw the photo thought it was a joke, said former Cole Harbour High student Victoria Boutilier, who was friends with Rehtaeh in middle school.
When asked if she and those she knew thought they were looking at an image of a rape, she nodded emphatically: “Yes.”
“It’s horrible,” said the 16-year-old. “Just the fact that no one actually took it seriously just, like, pisses me off.”
She said she’s not entirely surprised by the alleged sexual assault or the reaction to it in the community.
Boutilier said she knows of one other person who had a similar experience to what Rehtaeh described.
While the original investigation into the alleged gang-rape was dropped after a year without any charges being made, late last night Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister Ross Landry announced he was asking senior officials to present him with options for reviewing the case. This is a stark reversal from his earlier position of standing by investigator’s decision to close the case.
The intense media scrutiny and online outcry may have influenced his decision: An online petition calling for “justice for Rehtaeh” now has more than 13,000 signatures and a prominent Canadian Liberal strategist, Warren Kinsella, has posted an open letter asking online hacktivist collective Anonymous for help putting pressure on those who stood by while Parsons’ tragedy unfolded.