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Family feels failed by system in bullied girl's death after alleged assault

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HALIFAX - The family of a 17-year-old girl that's gone public about her suicide after months of bullying say they were failed at practically every turn when they tried to get help for the troubled teen.

Jason Barnes, the longtime boyfriend of Rehtaeh Parsons's mother, said a sad string of failures ultimately led to the girl's death more than a year after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by four boys.

"No matter where her mother turned to try to get help for her, no matter where Rehtaeh tried to turn to get help, all she had was her family," Barnes said Wednesday in an interview.

He said there was a teacher who Rehtaeh opened up to, but for the most part she was left to deal with her anguish on her own.

"The justice system failed us completely. The education system didn't seem to do much of anything."

The RCMP say they investigated the sexual assault allegations after consulting with the province's Public Prosecution Service but concluded there weren't enough grounds to lay charges.

"She was very upset, very devastated from that," Barnes said.

He said it took police 10 months to speak to the boys involved in the alleged assault, adding that wasn't acceptable.

"I'm pretty sure when they have somebody they need to speak to, they speak to them right away."

Rehtaeh's father, Glen Canning, vented the same kind of frustration with how the authorities dealt with her case.

"My daughter wasn't bullied to death, she was disappointed to death," said a post on his website.

"Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police."

Earlier in the day, Rehtaeh's family met with Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry after he announced Tuesday night that his department was looking for ways to review how the RCMP handled the allegations.

Landry initially ruled out the possibility of a review, but he said Wednesday that his change in position was driven by the public outcry over the case.

The Halifax Regional School Board says it took a hands-off approach when it became aware of the allegations because it didn't want to interfere with the police investigation.

Doug Hadley, a spokesman for the Halifax Regional School Board, said the Parsons family told Cole Harbour District High School that a police investigation had been launched into the alleged sexual assault, and a short time later Rehtaeh withdrew from the school.

Hadley also said the high school was informed by police that a photograph of her of the alleged incident was being circulated, but school officials didn't attempt to find the source.

"We thought that was a police job," he said.

Barnes said the board could do more to prevent bullying.

"They speak about it a lot, they talk about bullying and educate about it, but they really don't seem to get to the bottom of the things that take place," he said.

The province's education minister has asked the Halifax Regional School Board to review its response to the Parsons case.

Wayne MacKay, who led a task force last year on reducing instances of bullying in Nova Scotia, said he felt deep frustration when he learned of Rehtaeh's death.

The task force was launched after a 15-year-old girl committed suicide in 2011 after being bullied.

"It's not just the justice system, although there may be issues there, but also the education system," MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University, said in an interview.

MacKay said it's unacceptable that the school didn't investigate the alleged sexual assault.

"It's very clear in the law that you can proceed in a parallel fashion to have a criminal investigation and internal school discipline investigation."

MacKay has been critical of the provincial government's response to his task force's recommendations. He said the anti-bullying plan released by the province in February was a step forward, but the government continues to drag its heels on several important measures.

He said they include launching bullying prevention programs in the classroom and training school officials to identify students who may be at-risk for suicide.

Karen Casey, the Liberal party's education critic, says the NDP government's response to cyberbullying has been tepid.

"Unfortunately, it's not the first death of this kind we've had in this province and I expect it will not be the last. I hate to say that," said Casey.

Casey said its frustrating to hear the premier stating the time has come to pressure Ottawa for criminal code changes, years after she urged exactly those actions.

"There has been two years gone by when there could have been the dialogue the premier is talking about," she said.

Rehtaeh's family says she was taken off life-support Sunday night after she hanged herself last week.

Her death has caused an outpouring of anger in social media.

By late Wednesday afternoon, more than 17,000 people had "liked" a Facebook memorial page that Rehtaeh's mother has set up in tribute to her life. The page features dozens of photos of the smiling, bespectacled brunette, often with a dog by her side.

The page has also been flooded with hundreds of comments, many demanding that someone be held accountable for Rehtaeh's death.

"The cruelty of people and the useless justice system is mind boggling," said one post.

Another expressed disbelief at the young girl's final months.

"(I) have no words to express how deeply sorry and angry I am," it said.

"Rehtaeh deserved better. From police, and her peers."

Late Wednesday, the RCMP issued a statement saying it became aware of reports that people are suggesting harm against people involved in the Rehtaeh Parsons investigation.

"We are discouraging anyone from taking the law into their own hands, or in any way encouraging vigilante justice," Cpl. Scott MacRae said.

The Mounties said misinformation is circulating on both traditional and social media and that it is not always accurate or based on factual evidence.

Their statement came hours after an anonymous hacker group tweeted that it was aware of the identities of the boys allegedly involved in the sexual assault and threatened to make that information public.

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