Is a restorative justice approach appropriate for Dalhousie?

student protesters

Protesters at Dalhousie University on Dec. 19 demand the expulsion of ‘DDS Gentlemen ‘dentistry students (Yalitsa Riden/Twitter published in Toronto Sun)

A Facebook group called the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen might sound respectable. It was anything but. This was a site of sexually-explicit and violent discussions, many of which were directed against the female colleagues of those Dalhousie dentistry students who were part of this group.

Since the contents of the misogynistic Facebook page have become known, Dalhousie University is scrambling to figure out how best to respond. Currently the 13 ‘DDS Gentlemen’ involved are suspended from clinical practice and will attend classes separately from other students.

One of the approaches being considered to further address the issue is a restorative justice (RJ) approach. In a RJ process, victims and offenders meet to discuss the offence and the impacts it has had on them. Importantly, victims get to express not only how they have been effected, but also how they think the offenders should be punished.

Nova Scotian lawyer Danny Graham says this situation is an ideal opportunity for a restorative justice approach since it could address underlying issues like sexism and rape culture on university campuses. Similarly, Gerald Hashey, a senior manager with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, says the restorative justice process will “keep close to heart the interests of the female students and the general public.”

However, there are concerns that a restorative justice approach, in which the victims must be in the same room as the offenders, could re-victimize the women and trigger painful emotions.

Recently, a group of fourth-year female students who were the subject of some of the offensive Facebook posts wrote an open letter to the president of the Dalhousie saying that they are being forced by the university to accept a restorative justice approach. They have been told their choice is either this or a formal process in which they would be publicly named.

The fact that these women are so fearful of being publicly named is telling. Like any other victims of sexual assault and harassment, they know they could face backlash not only from the male students but also from the broader community. They know this scandal could follow them for years and damage their social and professional reputations. Yet they were victimized simply because they are women and are Dalhousie dentistry students. This fear of shaming needs to be addressed as much, if not more so, than the misogyny of the male students.

The restorative justice process is meant to empower victims, ensure that their voices are heard, and give them a supported, not shamed, position. But the women at Dalhousie say they feel silenced by the university and coerced to participate.

Victims should never be forced into a restorative justice approach, especially victims of sexual violence.

By failing to ensure that the victims actually want to participate in a restorative justice approach, the university is undermining its potential to empower the women directly impacted. There is a risk that this particular RJ process at Dalhousie could backfire. This could jeopardize future RJ processes in Canada since, across the country, people are watching most closely.

What do you think? Is RJ appropriate for this situation at Dalhousie?

Resources on the use of restorative justice in cases of sexual violence and abuse can be found on Restorative Justice Online.

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