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International conference learns from Dal's restorative process

Posted by Cheryl Bell on July 25, 2016 in News
Dr. Debora Matthews (left) and Dr. Mary McNally (right) address the International Restorative Conference.
Dr. Debora Matthews (left) and Dr. Mary McNally (right) address the International Restorative Conference.

The over 400 delegates from around the world who gathered in the World Trade and Convention Centre in Halifax for the 2016 International Restorative Conference on June 27 and 28 learned from the experience of the Faculty of Dentistry with its restorative response to offensive social media posts that attracted significant attention nationally and internationally in December 2014.

See also: Restorative justice leaders gather in Halifax to share expertise

In her opening remarks, assistant dean of Academic Affairs Dr. Debora Matthews explained that responding to the situation “was complicated by the number of voices with strong opinions on the right thing to do. However, we were guided by several of the young women who were directly harmed by the social media posts and who showed insight and eloquence in choosing the restorative approach – choosing education over punishment, growth over revenge."

As chair of the Faculty of Dentistry’s Next Steps Committee, Matthews has been working with staff and faculty to implement commitments made within the restorative justice process. “Although many people were deeply hurt and angered by these events, ultimately it has had a positive impact,” she said. “It has shone the light on the issues of misogyny, homophobia, and racism – issues that pervade our faculty, campuses, profession, and society. It has opened up necessary and important conversations about these issues and the steps needed for positive change. Our participation in this conference is part of our commitment to that ongoing change.”

Dr. Mary McNally, a professor of health care ethics in the Faculties of Dentistry and Medicine at Dalhousie, was part of the panel titled “A Restorative Approach to Professional Responsibility and Discipline.” As chair of the fourth-year Academic Standards Class Committee (ASCC), McNally and her fellow committee members were responsible for determining the performance and promotion of the Class of 2015.

She noted that the conference was an opportunity to reflect on the Faculty’s experience using the restorative justice process to learn, heal and move forward.  The positive feedback from restorative experts around the world made the faculty, the university and all participants feel proud of what they had accomplished and committed to what has yet to be done.

“The young women affected chose restorative justice, believing that punitive measures wouldn’t help,” said McNally. “We didn’t fully understand the process when we started, but we came to realize that addressing key professional values was aligned with the restorative justice process.”

The students tell their story

Perhaps the most poignant voices heard at the conference were those of the students. Several of the students involved in the restorative process in 2015 as well as some current students spoke at the conference in a session moderated by Barry Stuart, retired chief judge of the Territorial Court of the Yukon. The students were joined by the staff who facilitated this work, Melissa MacKay, associate director of Dal Student Life, and Jacob MacIsaac, community safety officer with Dalhousie University Security Services.

The students spoke of the closeness of student life in dentistry school. “When the story hit the news,” said one of the female students, “the first thing we wanted to do was get together with our classmates, as mad as we were with some of them.”

Wanting a process that demanded better from both the men involved and their faculty, the women chose a restorative approach. As one female member of the Class of 2015 put it to the audience: “We wanted a process of education, not punishment and expulsion.”

The women admitted that the Facebook posts weren’t a total surprise, but an “escalation of behaviour that we’d already encountered.” When Melissa MacKay first met with the women, she said it was “very clear that the outcome that mattered to them was not just at an individual level but at a systemic level.”

The women explained they didn’t see themselves as victims; what shocked and hurt them, however, were accusations and judgements claiming that they were “weak women” or “bad feminists” who had been forced into the restorative process.

The situation led to a great deal of hostility, with much of it coming from outside the restorative process. ”We had to be protective of the safety and well-being of all participants and checked in with them daily.”  said MacIsaac.

"We feel a duty to see good come from this work"

Despite criticism on many fronts and sustained media scrutiny, the process was restorative for the parties and was a profound – and ongoing – learning experience. Everyone spoke of trust, respect, listening and communication, and the burden of responsibility.

“I grew up with social media and had become desensitized to it,” said one of the male students. “Then I saw how quickly and severely lives can change. I’m not on social media anymore. I call or visit people, and my relationships with family and friends are stronger.” A female student said: “Before the process, I saw myself as a follower. Now I see that I have a responsibility not to just let things go by. I really became a leader through this process.”

MacKay also found the process enlightening. “Like the participants, I learned about doing the right thing, even when people are questioning that. For example, it made me reflect on how we as women approach and think about such issues and how we work to make a difference.”

For one of the female students, the restorative process did what it was supposed to do: “It took something that was really bad and helped us through it and enabled us to carry on with our lives and relationships.”  

The current students, who continue to work restoratively to carry on the work of shifting climate and culture in the faculty, noted: “We see a lot of positive changes and we want to be part of it. We feel a duty to see good come from this work.”

They all admitted it wasn’t the easy option. “People outside the restorative justice process don’t understand it,” said a female student. “They said this was the easy way out. It wasn’t.”

Moderator Barry Stuart agreed. “Restorative justice isn’t an easy process,” he said. “It’s far easier to be in court and let the lawyers do all the talking. I want everyone here to know how brave you’ve been.”

See also: Restorative justice leaders gather in Halifax to share expertise