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Dentistry students’ Facebook scandal puts spotlight on restorative justice

Process has been used in Canada’s criminal justice system for decades and, informally, with students at Canadian universities.


In December, Dalhousie University President Richard Florizone announced that 28 students in the school’s fourth-year dentistry class would participate in a restorative justice process after a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment against male students who had posted misogynistic and sexually explicit comments to a Facebook group. The incident has brought restorative justice to the attention of the public and sparked a debate about whether the process is appropriate for a university setting.

Despite the recent scrutiny, restorative justice is not a new concept. It has long been practised in Aboriginal communities, has figured in Canada’s criminal justice system for at least four decades, and has been widely used at U.S. postsecondary institutions for many years. Restorative justice is also used at some Canadian universities, but it is a patchwork quilt of mostly informal processes included in student conduct policies, on-campus housing policies, and town-and-gown initiatives.

Instead, “it’s been the norm that most institutions use a retributive system mimicking a criminal trial,” said Robyn Jacobson, a Toronto-based consultant and trainer on conflict management in educational settings. Through investigations and hearings, the retributive system seeks to determine blame and appropriate punishments.

Restorative justice seeks to repair the social relationships harmed through an incident by bringing together the offender (who must acknowledge responsibility and voluntarily agree to the process), the harmed party (either in person or through a statement), and relevant community members to resolve the conflict. There are a number of restorative models used, the most common being community forums, mediation, and restorative circles in which the parties literally sit in a circle to discuss accountability, harms and repercussions.

“You’re able to give much more focus to the needs of the community and the needs of the person that’s been harmed,” Dr. Jacobson said,“[by] asking questions like, ‘What’s been done?’ ‘What’s the impact?’ ‘How can we remedy this?’ ‘Who’s responsible for making this right?’”

Currently, most policies addressing non-academic student conduct at Canadian universities allow for “informal processes” as an alternative to formal hearings before the university’s senate discipline committee. These informal processes generally include restorative models and sanctions that are restorative or educational in nature (reflection essays, community service, etc.). Rarely, though, do the policies explicitly refer to these options as a “restorative justice” process.

Dr. Jacobson takes issue with informal use of the practice. She maintains that the only way to effectively integrate restorative justice into an institution’s approach to student discipline is to name it properly and spell it out in policy. As an informal practice, it’s up to individual administrators or staffers to decide on how the process should be carried out, and when those people move on, “that restorative process can be lost,” Dr. Jacobson says.

The University of Victoria has used restorative justice since 2011, when it introduced a revised policy for resolving non-academic misconduct that allows for this kind of informal dispute resolution process and educational sanctions. However, it also formalized a relationship with Restorative Justice Victoria, a non-profit organization that facilitates restorative justice circles. The process has been used to deal with offences such as threats of violence, vandalism, and even a criminal charge of sexual assault, said Jonathan Derry, UVic’s associate director of judicial affairs.

The latter case involved two male students “pranking” female students in the library by placing filled condoms on their legs. A witness filed a complaint with campus security and eventually police charged the men with sexual assault. Restorative Justice Victoria, working with UVic, discovered that although the offenders admitted responsibility, they didn’t understand why this woman no longer felt safe on campus. The process gave her the chance to explain – through facilitators — how the event had triggered a traumatic memory and a post-traumatic response, and to hold the men to account for it. The men agreed to an educational program (including regular meetings with sexual assault centre staff and participation in a men’s discussion circle), and the process “had a great impact on them,” said Mr. Derry. “One of the students said it ‘changed the way I view the world.’”

Some, like Yvonne Atwell, executive director of the Community Justice Society in Halifax, believe that the use of restorative justice in cases of gender-based violence requires more research. In an op-ed co-authored for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, she noted, “In situations where structural issues such as discrimination, privilege and social inequality are at play, restorative processes must tread very carefully. The question of ‘restored to what?’ must be asked continually.”

Meanwhile, the emphasis on learning and relationship building has made restorative justice an attractive option in residence halls, said Deborah Eerkes, director of the office of student judicial affairs at the University of Alberta. In 2013, the U of A rewrote its Residence Community Standards Policy and openly based it on the principles of restorative justice “to change the culture in residence to make it a stronger community,” she said. The process is voluntary and used to address minor issues like noise complaints, vandalism and roommate disagreements. In the last academic year, the office resolved 541 cases through restorative practices, and Ms. Eerkes has noticed a difference in how students in residence interact with one another. “They talk in terms of harms and repairs,” she said. “Now when they have a small conflict between themselves, they have the tools to work it out.”

Lyndsay Anderson manager of student dispute resolution oversees the Restorative Justice Pilot Project at Dalhousie. A partnership between the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, the Halifax Regional Police Service and the university, the pilot is an extension of that province’s existing restorative justice program, which diverts youth from the criminal system. It targets students who have been issued tickets for summary offences like underage drinking (a $460 fine) or public intoxication ($130) and refers them to Ms. Anderson’s office. In some instances of low-level criminal charges, the Crown Attorney will refer a case to Ms. Anderson. (However, she does not deal with complaints that fall under the university’s sexual harassment, student conduct or residence policies. These cases, like that of the dentistry students, are dealt with by the vice-provost, student affairs, or a designate.)

Modelling her procedure on a best practice guide published by the N.S. Department of Justice, Ms. Anderson starts the process with intake meetings with the involved parties that go on as long as necessary and focus on reflection and self-assessment. These meetings then proceed to the circle process, which can take up to two hours. By the end the group has come up with a “restorative agreement” outlining what the offender is expected to do to make amends. Like almost all restorative programs, it can result in a range of outcomes including a formal apology, restitution, community service, counselling or educational workshops.

To those who criticize the process as a slap on the wrist, Ms. Anderson replies that restorative justice is “a process, not an outcome.” The U of A’s Ms. Eerkes said that most offenders find it extremely difficult to hear directly from someone they’ve harmed, detailing exactly how they’ve been hurt. “And then to have to think about what you’ve done and figure out a way to fix it — it’s much easier to be suspended,” she said. Moreover, a restorative justice process doesn’t preclude suspension or expulsion.

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  1. SC / February 4, 2015 at 17:03

    These are adults. Just post their names- a little bit of naming and shaming never hurt anyone. Alternatively, make copies of the offensive page widely available, with the targets’ names blacked out and the posters’ names visible.

  2. Ryan Deschamps / March 12, 2015 at 16:52

    “a little bit of naming and shaming never hurt anyone”

    Even assuming that you have this part right, there is no doubt that it would hurt the modern university as an institution. Halifax’s historical properties has a stockade as a memorial to a less civilized time. It seems like our social media lifestyles has brought back the values of the dark ages.