Restorative justice fails to bring peace to Dal
Grossly sexist Facebook postings by male dentistry students demand a tougher response, student leader says
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.”