Julia Steiny: Restorative Justice Concludes Ugly Dalhousie Facebook Scandal


By Julia Steiny

The nasty social-media scandal caused by male 4th year students at the Dalhousie University Dental School has resolved.  Victims, offenders and relevant faculty participated in a restorative-justice (RJ) process for five painful months.  In conclusion, they wrote a 9-page “Statement from the Restorative Justice Participants,” speaking together and as sub-groups.

This summation of lessons learned might well become a seminal document in the evolution of the growing Restoration movement.  It is not a report with specifics about who, what and when — however curious we are as to exactly what went on in those conference meetings.  Nor is it a how-to.  The RJ techniques are hardly mentioned.

Instead, they describe certain fruits of their labors — the mutual understandings reached, as well as some hard, life-changing experiences they never anticipated.  Twenty-nine of the students, nearly the whole 4th-year class, took part in the process, along with some faculty members and facilitators.

Briefly, the facts are these:  For three and a half years, thirteen men had an invitation-only Facebook page that functioned as a raunchy boys’ locker room.  Their postings seemed almost competitive in their vulgarity, indulging gluttonously in the bad-boy culture of manly, randy men.  Mind you, in person and daily life, they were close friends with their female colleagues in a tight culture of young adults, most of whom were far away from home.  But in cyberspace their discussions of those very women were repulsive.  Finally one offender outed the page to one of its victims.  The screen shots leaked to the press were media red meat.  Scandal erupted.  The public demanded vengeance.

Most universities would have expelled the men and washed their hands of it.

Dalhousie is a rare standard bearer for restorative justice in their handling of student misconduct.  The University offered the victims the opportunity to face their offenders, to be heard by them, and finally, to decide the consequences.

In the victims’ section of the Statement, the women explain their decision: RJ “provided us with a different sort of justice than the punitive type most of the loudest public voices seemed to want.  We were clear from the beginning, to the people who most needed to hear it, that we were not looking to have our classmates expelled as 13 angry men who understood no more than they did the day the posts were uncovered.”

Take-away #1:  Bad-boy culture is alive and well among us.

No one makes excuses for the hurt caused.  But according to the participants, one tough lesson was that on Facebook the offenders were just manifesting an oft-tolerated boys-will-be-boys culture.  Again, here are the victims:  “We are part of a generation in which inappropriate sexualization is more common and widespread than ever before, and we have become used to this.  …  For example, we have always known about the men’s Facebook group.  …  It was only when we knew it was about us that we took real offense.  That made us realize that we, as women, also contribute to the culture and climate that allows Facebook groups like the one at issue to persist and flourish.”

Take-away #2:  Also alive is a revenge culture that believes in the virtue of hurt.

Besides the remorse marbleized throughout, the Statement exudes resentment of the pressure and outright meanness of those who wanted blood.  From the get-go, the press and social media insisted the men be expelled at a minimum, and taken to court and prison, if possible.  What empathy there was for the women was expressed as rage at the men.  The backlash against using restorative justice itself was hot and hateful.  Midway through the process, the victims pleaded with the public to let the process play out.  RJ was their choice, after all, but the public bloodlust continued.

The offenders say, “The efforts of some to gain information about us have resulted in significant threats and harms against us and our families.”  Their families?!  Wow.

Mind you, the victims were satisfied.  They wanted the right to determine how to resolve the matter.  The entire group negotiated consequences for the men.  The Statement purposely gives no specifics beyond that each man performed at least 150 community service hours.  And from the time the story broke, they’d been suspended from performing their clinical hours, delaying their graduation at best.

The statement by participating faculty members says:  “Many felt the issues around the Facebook incident were black and white — a group of students did a terrible thing and should be expelled.  However, first and foremost we are educators.  Punitive measures such as expulsion do not change attitudes or positively influence future behaviour, nor do they address underlying systemic problems.  [The women] saw restorative justice as the most promising path towards meaningful change.”

The establishment of guilt, and meting out of hurt, doesn’t change anything for the better.  It’s revenge, an eye for an eye.  The punished offender often grows more defensive, resentful, hopeless of redemption and incapable of improving.  For that reason, traditional justice produces high rates of recidivism.  If changing behavior really is the point, punishment is not working.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny