Dalhousie restorative justice response to Facebook comments questioned

HALIFAX – Dalhousie University’s decision to use a restorative justice process in dealing with offensive Facebook comments have some people concerned that there won’t be real consequences for the perpetrators.

The university says some of the female victims chose the informal approach which is one of two options under the school’s sexual harassment policy. The decision means that the victims, perpetrators, and the university will work together to look at the harm done by the sexually violent and abusive comments and what the appropriate consequences should be.

The response on social media to Wednesday’s announcement was strong, with the Twitter hashtag #dalhousiehateswomen trending in Halifax. But others also agreed with the university’s response.

The limited public awareness around the restorative justice process could be part of the reason why some people are upset about it, said Dalhousie Law Professor Wayne MacKay. MacKay authored the 2013 report on sexism at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. That report was sparked by the infamous rape chants during St. Mary’s frosh week in September 2013.

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“People don’t recognize that restorative approaches can produce quite significant sanctions and quite significant accountability,” said MacKay. “And I think that will be the real test – what comes out of it at the end of the day.”

The students involved in making the misogynistic, sexually abusive comments on Facebook were months away from graduating from dentistry school and has raised concerns about public safety if these men are allowed to graduate and work as dentists. At Wednesday’s press conference President Richard Florizone said at this time he doesn’t see a public safety concern.

READ MORE: Dalhousie president hopes restorative justice will rebuild trust in classroom, public trust

Prominent Halifax activist and Dalhousie University instructor El Jones said the concerns of the wider community need to be taken account in the restorative justice process particularly because of some of the comments posted on Facebook.

“We have people who are going to become dentists talking about chloroforming women so do women feel safe going to dentists? I’ve heard women say, ‘If I know a man graduated from dentistry school in this year I’m not going to go to them because I don’t know what their beliefs are,'” said Jones. “So that needs to be recognized.”

Florizone says 13 fourth-year male dentistry students were members of a Facebook site where comments were posted about their female classmates. Florizone said it’s not known yet what consequences the restorative justice approach will lead to but added expulsion is still an option.

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Expulsion would appease the thousands of people who have signed an online petition calling for the perpetrators to be dismissed from school, but MacKay says there’s a reason why that hasn’t happened so far.

“Expelling while at one level strikes people as the right response, but on the other hand you do have to look at all the facts, maybe not all the people behaved the same way on the website,” MacKay said. “So taking time to get it right is important.”

The university wouldn’t give details on what, if any, part of the process would be made public but Florizone said he would have an update for the community by the end of January 2015. In the meantime he said no students would be graduated before the process is resolved. MacKay said in order for the public to have faith in the system the result of the restorative justice approach will need to be made public.

The university said it will also strike a task force to study sexism on campus.

– With files from The Canadian Press


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