David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Inquest hears of girl's sleepovers with ex teacher

Former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back, who was struck off for serious misconduct. Photo / Supplied
Former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back, who was struck off for serious misconduct. Photo / Supplied

A teenager who was having sleepovers and text communication with a former teacher was concerned he would lose his job if the extent of their relationship was discovered, the girl's mother told an inquest into her daughter's death.

A tearful Hinemoa McLelland told the coroner's court in Gisborne of a conversation she had with Reiha in 2014 after her parents began to discover the degree of the relationship with her former Gisborne Intermediate teacher, Sam Back.

She said Reiha, 13, was in her first year of high school when it became apparent she had maintained contact with Back and his partner Angie Mepham beyond what her parents considered appropriate.

Former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back and his partner Angela Mepham. Photo / Supplied
Former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back and his partner Angela Mepham. Photo / Supplied

Hinemoa McLelland recalled Reiha saying that "Mr Back told her he could lose his job if anyone found out" about the contact they had. "Reiha told me 'Mum, that must show how much he loves me if he's willing to lose his job for me'."

She said she told her daughter there were rules about contact between students and teachers for a reason and it would not be her fault if he lost his job.

The inquest into Reiha's death in August 2014 follows a ruling by the New Zealand Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal that Back be struck off and his partner Mepham be cautioned.

Reiha McLelland, 13, who is focus of an inquest in Gisborne. Photo / Supplied
Reiha McLelland, 13, who is focus of an inquest in Gisborne. Photo / Supplied

Coroner Carla na Nagara has allowed reporting of the case after hearing arguments that reporting of evidence as it was heard could present an unbalanced picture because other parties had yet to testify. Reiha's family, represented by lawyer Moira Macnab, supported full reporting of the inquest.

Hinemoa McLelland said her daughter's attempt to take her life, which resulted in her death, came only days after a letter from Gisborne Intermediate to Back in July 2014 in which he was told the results of its investigation into his contact with Reiha. The letter also included the school's notification that teaching authorities would be told, she said.

In the three days between the letter and Reiha's eventually fatal attempt on her own life, there were a number of calls to her phone from a phone which withheld caller identification, she said. It was her belief those calls came from Back, she said.

"Reiha had been bound to secrecy by Mr Back because his conduct was such it would result in him being struck off."

Hinemoa McLelland said her and husband Bruce's concerns for their daughter increased after Reiha lost a place at a boarding school because of concerns she was experiencing mental health issues.

On her return in March 2014 to the family farm, 50km outside Gisborne, Reiha had disappeared from the house after saying goodnight to her parents.

Mobile phone records, recovered during a police investigation which resulted in no charges, suggested Reiha had walked or run 12km to get into mobile phone coverage and "rang Mr Back to collect her".

The family had called police with concerns for Reiha's safety and an officer heading for the farm had found Reiha, Back and Mepham in a car close to the family home.

Contact with the pair in the days subsequent revealed a close connection with Reiha, she said. It included later seeing texts Back had sent Reiha saying "they would travel the world together" which was particularly concerning because her daughter had left the house in March 2014 with her passport.

Hinemoa McLelland said she and her husband were most concerned at what she described as efforts to keep the relationship secret. That included Back asking Reiha how her mother had responded to his assurances.

Another text message evidence showed Back and Mepham had arranged to visit Reiha while she was in mental health care at times which would avoid them running into her parents, she said.

She said she and Bruce McLelland met with Back and Mepham to ask they establish boundaries around their contact with Reiha. At the meeting, she said there was no indication from either teacher of the degree to email and text message contact or that Reiha had stayed over at their home.

She said the meeting was followed by a text from Mepham to Reiha which told her of the meeting and that her parents had asked they create some distance.

"The text was not helpful because I got blamed by Reiha for her not seeing Angie Mepham or Sam Back," she said.

While Reiha was in mental health care, Hinemoa McLelland had an opportunity to study her daughter's phone and found Back's number saved under a different name. She said there was also a text message in which Reiha had asked Back if she could stay over, to which he replied: "You know the deal. As long as all your bases are covered."

That was a factor which led to a police investigation revealing an "excessive amount of text communication".

The court has heard no charges were laid as a result of the investigation.

Hinemoa McLelland said she had concerns about the police investigation with the Gisborne Intermediate board of trustees chairman Theo Ackroyd also having a role in the investigation, which she described as a conflict of interest.

She said evidence would show the interview by police with Reiha was not compliant with how child protection investigations were to proceed. She said it raised concerns about how cases involving other children might be handled.

Cross-examination of Hinemoa McLelland is expected to take place tomorrow.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
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- NZ Herald

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