Restora­tive jus­tice fails to bring peace to Dal

Grossly sex­ist Face­book post­ings by male den­tistry stu­dents de­mand a tougher re­sponse, stu­dent leader says

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - SADIYA AN­SARI STAFF RE­PORTER

Male den­tistry stu­dents —13 of them — at Dal­housie Univer­sity in Hal­i­fax are at the cen­tre of a rag­ing de­bate about whether restora­tive jus­tice is an ap­pro­pri­ate process to deal with threats of a sex­ual na­ture.

Crit­ics are skep­ti­cal that a large in­sti­tu­tion such as Dal­housie will be able to man­age a sex­ual ha­rass­ment scan­dal through a process that re­quires a high de­gree of pa­tience and nu­ance to have suc­cess­ful out­comes for vic­tims.

As an al­ter­na­tive to pun­ish­ment, restora­tive jus­tice aims to re­pair re­la­tion­ships be­tween vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors.

The first stu­dent re­port to the school about on­line com­ments made by fi­nal-year den­tistry stu­dents was made on Dec. 8 and the story broke in the me­dia the fol­low­ing week.

CBC re­ported that sex­ist and misog­y­nis­tic com­ments, some about fe­male class­mates, had been posted on a Face­book group called Class of DDS 2015 Gen­tle­men.

Mem­bers of the group voted for which women they would like to “hate f---” and posted a joke about the use of chlo­ro­form on women. A photo of a woman in a bikini was also posted on the page, with the cap­tion: “Bang un­til stress is re­lieved or un­con­scious (girl).”

‘Deeply of­fen­sive’ Dal­housie Pres­i­dent Richard Flori­zone first re­sponded on Dec. 15, promis­ing ac­tion within 48 hours. Two days later, he con­demned the “deeply of­fen­sive” com­ments made about fe­male den­tistry stu­dents. He said some of the women had come for­ward and made com­plaints un­der the school’s sex­ual ha­rass­ment pol­icy. It gives stu­dents the op­tion or ei­ther mak­ing a for­mal com­plaint or go­ing through an in­for­mal process.

Flori­zone noted that the tar­geted women chose the in­for­mal process — in this case, restora­tive jus­tice. He also said that if par­tic­i­pants don’t seem com­mit­ted, the school will de­fault to the for­mal com­plaint pro­ce­dure.

The process will be con­fi­den­tial and take sev­eral months. Dal­housie did not re­spond to re­quests from the Star for fur­ther in­for­ma­tion on how this in­for­mal pro­ce­dure will work.

Dal­housie stu­dent leader Jac­que­line Skip­tu­nis is wor­ried the process will just be a way for the men to ex­press shal­low re­morse and for the univer­sity to con­clude the mat­ter is re­solved.

“Vi­o­lent threats are not fine,” says Skip­tu­nis, Dal­housie’s stu­dent union vice-pres­i­dent.

She ap­pre­ci­ates that the women den­tistry stu­dents them­selves chose the restora­tive jus­tice op­tion but ar­gues they shouldn’t be left with the sole re­spon­si­bil­ity of de­ter­min­ing a con­se­quence for their peers.

“Restora­tive jus­tice isn’t mak­ing them any more safe,” says Skip­tu­nis.

Thou­sands of peo­ple ap­pear to agree, judg­ing by the growth of an on­line pe­ti­tion started even be­fore Flori­zone made his an­nounce­ment. The pe­ti­tion calls for the ex­pul­sion of the 13 men in­volved.

Skip­tu­nis says what’s miss­ing from Dal­housie’s re­sponse, in­clud­ing di­rect ac­tion against the men in­volved, is how the school will tackle the sys­temic sex­ism that em­bold­ens such be­hav­iour.

Flori­zone promised to launch a task force to ad­dress the cul­ture of “sex­ism, misogyny and sex­u­al­ized vi­o­lence.”

But with­out spe­cific penal­ties now, says Skip­tu­nis, that ap­proach fails to demon­strate that threats of sex­ual vi­o­lence are sim­ply un­ac­cept­able, says Skip­tu­nis.

Flori­zone’s re­sponse was also de­scribed as “lack­lus­tre” by Jude Ash­burn, who works at the cam­pus’s gen­der jus­tice cen­tre, South House.

Ash­burn started the hash­tag #dal­housiehate­swomen on Dec. 17, cre­at­ing another out­let for those ques­tion­ing the va­lid­ity of Dal­housie’s re­sponse.

Ash­burn says the univer­sity is sim­ply try­ing to “co-opt” com­mu­ni­ty­based lan­guage by us­ing the term restora­tive jus­tice. “It’s not some­thing a univer­sity com­plex knows how to do.”

But this type of highly charged sit­u­a­tion is just a new ap­pli­ca­tion of the restora­tive jus­tice con­cept that Cana­dian univer­si­ties are start­ing to look at, says B.C. aca­demic Alana Abram­son, who has stud­ied the sub­ject and worked in the field for 15 years.

Abram­son just hosted a con­fer­ence at Thom­son Rivers Univer­sity in Kam­loops, B.C. on how post-sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions can use restora­tive jus­tice as an al­ter­na­tive to ex­ist­ing dis­ci­plinary pro­cesses. The ap­proach is much more common in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, Abram­son says, par­tic­u­larly among youth and abo­rig­i­nal of­fend­ers. The con­cept grew out of the prac­tices of some in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that value re­paired re­la­tion­ships above puni­tive ac­tion.

Process poorly un­der­stood Once those meet­ings have taken place — which can take months — a face-to-face meet­ing with all par­ties can follow.

“If per­pe­tra­tors are not will­ing to take re­spon­si­bil­ity in an hon­est and sin­cere way, then the process is not for them,” says Abram­son.

She ac­knowl­edges that restora­tive jus­tice is of­ten seen as a soft ap­proach, that it suf­fers from a “myth that peo­ple are sit­ting around and talk­ing and there is no ac­tion.” That hasn’t been her ex­pe­ri­ence. “The chal­lenge to sit face to face with some­one you have harmed, the peo­ple I’ve seen through this process say, is of­ten much harder than an ex­pul­sion, sus­pen­sion or crim­i­nal record,” says Abram­son.

But she also ap­pre­ci­ates why there are so many crit­ics in a case deal­ing with sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

In or­der to ad­dress the big­ger is­sue of sex­ism on cam­pus, Abram­son says Dal­housie it­self should also be held ac­count­able — and pre­sum­ably be part of the process.

Arally or­ga­nized by the Avalon Sex- ual As­sault Cen­tre on Fri. Dec. 19 drew a few hun­dred pro­tes­tors call­ing for the ex­pul­sion of the den­tistry stu­dents re­spon­si­ble for the Face- book com­ments. The group ral­lied out­side the den­tistry build­ing and the univer­sity pres­i­dent’s of­fice. One sign read: “Ex­pel rape cul­ture.”

SHERRI LEE PHOTO

Protesters out­side Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity’s den­tistry build­ing on Dec. 19 de­mand the ex­pul­sion of 13 stu­dent mem­bers of a Face­book group re­spon­si­ble for sex­ual com­ments about fe­male class­mates.

SHERRI LEE PHOTO

Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity gets a pointed mes­sage on Dec. 19 about what it should do with male den­tistry stu­dents be­hind misog­y­nis­tic on­line re­marks about fe­male class­mates.

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