A restorative solution for Dal students and the community
Ryan McNutt - September 13, 2012
A university, like a city, is a community: rebuilt and renewed each year as new students come from around the world, living side-by-side with neighbours who may be lifelong residents.
At its best, this influx of new energy is invigorating. But at its most challenging—when more extreme student behaviours like heavy drinking or vandalism betray that idea of community—it can lead to tension, anger and frustration.
For several years now, Dalhousie has partnered with Halifax Regional Police (HRP) on a number of programs to help keep the neighbourhoods surrounding Dal safe and supportive, including Dalhousie's Designated Police Patrol.
Now, with the launch of a new restorative justice program supported by the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, Dalhousie and HRP are providing a new option for Dal students and neighbours to resolve disputes, with the goal of building stronger community relationships in the process.
The program is the first community restorative justice program in Canada specifically for university students, and the first adult restorative program in Halifax Regional Municipality.
A community solution
Restorative justice provides an alternate method of rehabilitation for minor offences, provided the responsible party is willing to take full responsibility for his or her actions. In doing so, the offender avoids a criminal record and traditional punishment (fines, court appearances, etc.).
Picture this scenario as an example: a Dal student who’s had a few too many drinks ends up breaking a neighbour’s fence. If the student is caught and charged, but accepts responsibility and agrees to take part in the restorative justice program, he or she will be assigned a caseworker. That person will sit down with the student and the neighbour to determine a suitable program to help right the wrong—perhaps the student rebuilding the fence, or doing some landscaping work.
“It moves away from a model based on blame and punishment toward a model that encourages responsibility and accountability,” said Dal President Tom Traves, speaking about the program during an announcement event at Halifax Regional Police Headquarters.
The most crucial part of the process is that, "it inserts community into the process so they don’t just wait on the sidelines for something to happen,” notes Jennifer Llewellyn, a Dalhousie law professor and academic advisor to the Nova Scotia Provincial Restorative Justice Program Management Committee. “It takes into account that we live in a community, together, with connected relationships.”
Bill Moore, deputy chief of HRP, explained how the program empowers victims and community members while also helping change offensive behaviours.
“Victims will have the opportunity to both express the impact the offender’s actions have had on their lives, as well as take part in the discussion around consequences,” he said. “At the same time, the offender will be expected to take full responsibility for their actions and take steps to address the underlying issues that contributed to their offensive behaviour.”
How students take part
At a community open house Tuesday night, Dianne Norman, Dalhousie’s manager of student conflict resolution, outlined how the program will work at the university:
- Dal students over the age of 18 who are charged with eligible criminal or summary offences will be informed about the program by HRP officers.
- Eligible offences include charges under the Liquor Act (underage drinking, open alcohol, public intoxication) and the Protection of Property Act, as well as minor criminal offences (mischief, disorderly conduct, minor assault not causing bodily harm, etc.). At this point, the program is for provincial statutes only, meaning municipal bylaws—including noise—are not eligible.
- For summary (ticketed) offences, students have 24 hours to contact the Student Dispute Resolution office if they want to take part in the program. For criminal offences, students are referred by HRP or the Crown Attorney’s office.
- Students must agree to full participation in the program, and accept full responsibility for the offense.
The range of restorative measures may include (but are not limited to) community service, restitution/financial compensation, education programs, letters of apology or referral for counseling/treatment. For offences without a specific individual who was harmed, there may be group education sessions—for example, a meeting with community members to discuss the harms of excessive drinking on the neighbourhood.
“It’s a voluntary process, but students have to follow it through,” said Norman (pictured, left). “It’s a much more arduous process than simply paying a ticket. It’s about getting away from understanding ‘righting a wrong’ as just being ticketed or fined, but towards addressing harms and addressing causes.”
Profile: Dianne Norman - "A new voice for student conflict resolution" (March 2012)
Dal Security is also a major partner in the program, with Community Safety Officer Jacob MacIsaac serving as one of its caseworkers.
"It’s not just about trying to get students in trouble; quite the opposite," he said at the open house. "We want them to expand their understanding of safety and security and see how these issues affect their community."
Up and running
At the launch event, Dal and HRP announced that more than 50 students charged with offences in late August and early September have already committed to the restorative process. (Norman is also working on a similar program for on-campus infractions in residence.)
The university also hopes that the program attracts neighbours and community members to get involved: as facilitators, volunteers or simply as willing and supportive participants if they end up in a situation involving a student.
As for why Dalhousie has taken a lead role in developing the program, Dr. Traves framed it as a logical extension of the university’s role as an education leader.
“Dal has been a leader in leading research on restorative justice issues, with faculty members—especially those in our Schulich School of Law—who have taken a role in exploring innovative initiatives both in practice and through their research efforts. Having leant our wisdom and expertise to the wider world, it’s appropriate that we take that expertise and turn it much closer to home and so, in some ways, Dal is the perfect place to launch this program.”
For more on the restorative justice program, visit its website at dal.ca/think