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Dalhousie Dentistry Students Levied More Penalties Over Facebook Page

01/09/2015 12:11 EST | Updated 03/11/2015 05:59 EDT
HALIFAX - The 13 male dentistry students at Dalhousie University who were allegedly members of a Facebook page where sexually violent content about women was posted will no longer attend classes with the rest of their classmates, the president of the university announced Friday.

Richard Florizone said the university has also launched an independent investigation that will explore the environment, training and policies at the dentistry school to determine if they contributed to a tolerance for misogyny and sexist conduct.

"It's been a tough month for our university ... and mostly for the women who were directly targeted in these posts," he told a news conference. "All of us continue to be shaken by those misogynistic comments that we find completely unacceptable."

He said the 13 male students will not be allowed to attend lectures with the rest of their classmates when classes resume Monday. The 13 students had their clinical privileges suspended earlier this week.

Those students will attend classes "remotely" or in other classrooms on campus, Florizone said.

He said the restorative justice process offered earlier to those affected will continue despite assertions from some female students that they were pressured into joining the process.

Fourteen women and 12 of the 13 members of the Facebook group will be taking part in the process, which uses an informal and confidential resolution procedure that includes all of the parties involved.

Florizone said he understands that some people have been left frustrated by the slow pace of the process, saying in a statement: "Restorative justice isn't a process that can satisfy a desire for swift resolution."

"We understand that it is a process that focuses on reconciliation and reflection and it can be a powerful tool for change," he said. "I understand those who have a different view."

Reports of the offensive posts and the university's initial response prompted rallies and calls for expulsion of the 13 students.

Four faculty members also filed a formal complaint last month through the university's code of student conduct, but Florizone had little to say about that process.

The Facebook page at the centre of the controversy has been taken down. But according to the CBC, members of the Class of DDS Gentlemen page on Facebook voted on which woman they'd like to have "hate" sex with and joked about using chloroform on women. The CBC said in another post, a woman is shown in a bikini with a caption that says, "Bang until stress is relieved or unconscious (girl)."

As for the independent investigation, Florizone said Constance Backhouse, a professor at the University of Ottawa recognized for her work on sex discrimination, will lead the probe. She is required to submit her recommendation by June 30 and the report will be made public.

Jacqueline Warwick, an associate professor of gender and women's studies, said she and the three other professors who have filed the formal complaint were generally pleased with Florizone's actions — but they have a few concerns.

While they applauded the promised investigation, Warwick said, the group wants a broader commitment by the university to combat systemic problems of misogyny and gender-based violence beyond the faculty of dentistry.

Florizone said the university was mindful of that concern when it decided to appoint Kim Brook, the dean of law, to lead a "strategic initiative" on diversity and inclusiveness. Florizone said Brook's task is to look at the entire campus.

As for the university's decision to separate the students, Warwick said she wanted to see more details on how that plan will work to ensure that female students named in the Facebook posts won't have to confront any of the men involved in the group.

Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie law professor and human rights expert, said he was encouraged by the multi-pronged approach, including the decision to keep the group of male students away from other classmates.

"There's a reasonable balance of still respecting the rights of the accused because there's no complete prejudgment of what's going to happen," he said. "But it does provide a more appropriate environment in the school of dentistry while this gets worked through."

However, MacKay said the university must look into creating a system where students can make anonymous complaints when facing harassment and cyberbullying.

"Being able to file a complaint anonymously is hugely important in order to have victims come forward," he said.

Michaela Sam, president of the student union at the University of King's College, which shares a campus with Dalhousie, said the measures don't go far enough.

She said separating the students "doesn't make our students feel any safer on campus and does nothing to protect students."

Like MacKay, Sam said the school needs a system of anonymous reporting. As well, she is calling for a mandatory equity course for all students that discusses the causes of gender-based violence and oppression.

Follow @NovaMac on Twitter.

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