David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Bereaved parents' distress at 'mongrel' teacher's bond with their daughter

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

The distressed parents of a 13-year-old girl presumed to have taken her life have told an inquest of their shock at learning the extent of her ties with a former teacher.

Bruce and Hinemoa McLelland told a coroner's court hearing at Gisborne of the slowly unfolding discovery their daughter Reiha had exchanged "excessive" numbers of text messages with former teacher Sam Back.

They also questioned the involvement of Back's partner Angie Mepham, who was also in text contact with Reiha during a period in which serious concerns emerged over the teenager's mental health.

The inquest is a sequel to hearings before the Teachers' Disciplinary Tribunal that saw Back struck off as a teacher and Mepham cautioned over their ties to Reiha, who died in August, 2014.

The hearing before coroner Carla na Nagara heard Back had taught Reiha at Gisborne Intermediate in 2013 but kept contact with her through the following year, including allowing sleepovers at the couple's house without her parents' knowledge.

"He's an absolute mongrel," said an emotional Bruce McLelland of Back.

"I'll try to be dignified but these teachers are ... I can't really say what they are."

Both parents told how they became aware of the relationship in March 2014, when Reiha had climbed out her window at night shortly after concerns had been raised as to her mental well-being.

She was found with Back and Mepham in a car near the house, and Hinemoa McLelland said her daughter would have had to walk or run 12km to get a mobile phone signal to contact the pair.

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

Reiha had left the house with her passport, which caused the McLellands concerns when a later police inquiry revealed a text among many from Back in which he told the girl "they would travel the world together", said Hinemoa McLelland.

No charges were laid as a result of the police inquiry, which also came in for criticism from the McLellands.

Bruce McLelland read from his original statement to police after Reiha was found dead in which he said it seemed "like [Back] was sexually grooming her".

He referred to the "relationship" that had developed between Reiha and Back as "the guts of all the problems".

"He had really worked on her and developed a strong bond," he said of Back.

There was also text, email and written communication.

McLelland spoke of one such letter, written by Back to Reiha after she had gone to high school while he was on a Gisborne Intermediate camp.

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

McLelland called it a "love letter", in which Back told the 13-year-old: "This is where our journey started from." Reiha had been on a school camp with Back the previous year.

Evidence was given that in one of the text messages, 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."

Hinemoa McLelland recalled Reiha saying "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 it would not be Reiha's fault if he lost his job.

Her evidence highlighted the role of Detective Sergeant Theo Ackroyd as supervisor of Gisborne's child protection team, which conducted the inquiry on Back, and his role as chairman of the Gisborne Intermediate board of trustees.

Back and Mepham - who have yet to testify - were represented by lawyer Adam Simperingham, who asked McLelland to confirm that the police investigation had ruled out grooming. McLelland responded: "The police investigation was seriously flawed."

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- NZ Herald

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