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Commentary: The inadequacies of a restorative justice process

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In response to a sex scandal at Dalhousie University, in which 13 male dentistry students posted explicit sexual and misogynist comments about their female peers on social media, the university opted for a restorative justice process in an effort to curtail flaws in the traditional judicial process. Despite its theoretical benefits, however, restorative justice alone is just as ineffective as the Canadian justice system in delivering proper solutions.

Many universities, like Dalhousie, have begun to favour restorative justice because it solves problems not addressed in the punitive Canadian justice system, such as recidivism, lack of victim input in the justice process, and minimal peace restoration in the community. Attributing the benefits of restorative justice processes to its focus on communication, the president of Dalhousie University remarked that he was “struck by the horror and regret he heard from some of the men involved.” Through directly instigating victim and offender discourse, the restorative justice process exposes offenders to the transgressions of their actions, and thus encourages rehabilitation.

Moreover, the formal justice system can also be intimidating for victims to navigate when they are at their most vulnerable emotional states. It is a less complicated and traumatic avenue for victims who do not press charges, but instead want apologies from offenders and a better learning environment.

Although it sounds favourable on paper, restorative justice can only be realistically operational if the third party administering it, in this case Dalhousie University, has trust from students involved in the scandal and is well-equipped to handling traumatic issues that require a high degree of sensitivity and professionalism. Due to the university’s inadequate treatment of the issue so far, which has incited enormous public outcry, Dalhousie’s qualification as a trustworthy and operational system has not been demonstrated.

This issue was exacerbated from the very beginning when Dalhousie failed to immediately take action when it came to light. According to the vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union, “The president of Dalhousie University knew about sexism complaints against the Faculty of Dentistry in the summer.” Since the university neither prioritized nor respected the safety and well-being of its female students, it is difficult for students to have faith in the administration system.

It is a less complicated and traumatic avenue for victims who do not press charges, but instead want apologies from offenders and a better learning environment.

Furthermore, even with prevalent misogyny on campus, the university protected the offenders by not expelling them, but merely suspending their clinical privileges temporarily, thus still allowing them to have accreditation. This decision endangers the psychological well-being of not only the women involved, but also every student on campus. “Imagine sitting in a classroom and trying to focus on studying […] when you’re sitting in a room with people that have talked about raping you”, said Jennifer Nowoselski, a female dentistry student. Even more angering was when the university recently rejected a request from the licensing body that governs Ontario’s dentists to hand over the names of the 13 offenders. The prioritization of the offenders’ privacy rights disproportionately harms the entire dentistry class, who will all face more unnecessary scrutiny when applying for licenses and employment opportunities.

Lastly, it is ambiguous whether the university actually allowed the female dentistry students to fairly consent to this justice process. Recently, in an anonymous letter to the President of Dalhousie University, four female dentistry students wrote that this form of punishment is inadequate and unfair: “Telling us that we can either participate in restorative justice or file a formal complaint is presenting us with a false choice. We have serious concerns about the impact of filing formal complaints on our chances of academic success at the Faculty of Dentistry, and believe that doing so would jeopardize our futures.” If Dalhousie University chose to operate restorative justice without clear permission from the students involved, it is highly likely that the process will fail.

Although restorative justice may provide greater focus on rehabilitation, it must work hand in hand with the already existing justice system to deliver adequate restitution. The sexual assault scandal at McGill and the Facebook harassment incident at Dalhousie expose greater problems within the internal university systems that are ill-equipped to deal with student issues. The solution is to not only improve the judicial process, which would be a long and arduous process, but to push universities to provide a more professional restorative justice process, counselling services, experienced professionals to aid victims in dealing with the justice system, and a more supportive and non-discriminatory campus. These changes combined can not only help victims have a smoother psychological transition back into their learning environments, but also lessen social stigmas against victims of sexual assault and encourage more survivors to come forward.

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