Girl's death: Teacher Sam Back allowed student to call him 'big boy'

By Amelia Wade

Reiha McLelland's death is the focus of an inquest in Gisborne. Photo / Supplied
Reiha McLelland's death is the focus of an inquest in Gisborne. Photo / Supplied

The emails started innocently. Reiha McLelland wanted help with her poetry and her teacher, Sam Back, was happy to help her writing flourish.

But within a few months, the 13-year-old was calling him "big boy", he called her "darling". She was sleeping over at his house and when the pair weren't together they exchanged thousands of texts and emails.

The details of the former Gisborne teacher's relationship with his "lovely" student were revealed yesterday at an inquest into her death as Back gave evidence.

The 41-year-old, who has been struck off for serious misconduct, said they shared poetry they enjoyed and he critiqued her poems.

The family's lawyer, Moira Macnab asked if he took into account her age - just 13 - when he sent her dark, adult-themed poems.

"I took into account her writing age," he said.

Late one night in October 2013 Reiha showed up on the doorstep of the house he shared with partner Angie Mepham "seeking shelter" - she was soaked and Back said he believed she'd run away from home.

After she refused to let the couple call her parents, Reiha stayed in the spare room.

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

Under cross examination, Back admitted his mistake and that he should have alerted someone at Gisborne Intermediate. Instead, he stayed silent until the relationship was uncovered months later.

"I really think that I should have called the principal right away."

As the school year ended and Reiha prepared to go to boarding school in Napier, they had reached a point where Back had told the teenager she could stay at his and Mepham's home whenever she liked, but told the inquest it made the couple "very uncomfortable".

However, Back never told other teachers, authorities or her parents about their relationship. He told the inquest he was too busy and he was scared she would run away.

Throughout the summer of 2013/14, Reiha and Back exchanged thousands of texts and emails uncovered during a later police investigation, which resulted in no charges.

He would pick her up in his car around the corner of sports games so they weren't seen, told her they would "travel the world together", exchanged song lyrics and she spoke about her feelings.

"You're amazing Reiha, so great and just damn straight amazing. Out of this world even AMAZING," he texted her on December 13.

He said that was a just a joke, part of the way they spoke to each other.

"We were just being cheeky."

As he watched the sunrise on New Year's Day, he again texted her to let her know he was thinking of her.

"Miss you."

In the inquest, Back said by this point their relationship had gone beyond that of a student and teacher.

"Reiha and I had much in common and many mutual interests. I could also relate, on a certain level, to what she may be feeling due to being through similar situations."

Macnab submitted Reiha had fallen in love with the teacher. He did not agree.

"I'm very well aware of what a crush looks like. I can see it a mile away."

The lawyer pressed Back on whether he thought it was a mistake he didn't tell anyone about his relationship with Reiha - that he broke the trust of her parents.

When he wouldn't answer succinctly, Coroner Carla na Nagara ordered he respond.

Back rated it as a seven on a scale of one to 10 but said he thought he was supporting her, being a good human and acting in her best interests.

The teacher also said he didn't think anything was wrong with her calling him "big boy" because everyone did. When Macnab said it was usually used as a reference to a man's endowment, he said: "That's disgusting."

"I don't think about it the way that you do."

Reiha'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.

The McLelland family have blamed Back and Mepham's involvement with Reiha for her death in August 2014.

Back will continue to be cross-examined.

Where to get help

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

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 22 Oct 2016 20:13:17 Processing Time: 575ms