Thirteen dentistry students at Halifax’s Dalhousie University have been temporarily suspended from taking part in clinical training, after making allegedly violent sexual comments on a shared Facebook group, university authorities announced in a statement on Monday, January 5.
The fourth-year Nova Scotia students will also be pulled from classes until January 12, pending consideration by a faculty committee, for posts made on the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” group on the social media website.
Dalhousie University president Richard Florizone revealed that the decision to suspend the students was made on December 22, but only publicized this week as students returned to class after “credible reports from front-line staff” that several of the affected men were at risk of self-harm and in need of counseling services.
During a press conference on Monday, dentistry faculty dean Dr. Thomas Boran stated that no student would be allowed to graduate, and could face dismissal, if they were found to have violated the “professionalism requirements of the academic program.” Boran admitted that the case had “totally rocked our administration.”
Screenshots of the Facebook group circulated in December, in which members made explicit comments concerning female students on the dentistry course. The group included a poll inviting members to pick a fellow student for “hate sex,” and references to the use of chloroform.
One post, dated to May 2013, offered a definition of a penis as “the tool used to wean and convert lesbians and virgins into useful, productive members of society.” Another user of the group replied: “And by productive, I’m assuming to mean it inspires them to become chefs, housekeepers, babysitters, etc.”
One female dentistry student, featured in screenshots on the website, told CBC in December that she was most angered about the comments implying women were only suited to cooking, cleaning, or childcare.
The same student also criticized Florizone’s proposals for a process of “restorative justice” whereby those responsible could meet with those mentioned, as being insufficiently rigorous and placing unreasonable burdens on students.
Five Dalhousie professors meanwhile called for the school to create an independent inquiry into gender-related violence. Members of the law, philosophy, and anthropology departments co-authored a statement which demanded that the university investigate the “systemic causes of sexualized violence” and protect future patients of Dalhousie dentistry trainees. The professors acknowledged that sexualized violence was an issue across universities nationwide.
Also in December, Nova Scotia Health Minister Leo Glavine refused to rule out the possibility that the students could be barred from medical practice.
“That’s a stage that I’m absolutely prepared to address as this unfolds in the coming weeks,” he told reporters. Provincial authorities control 7 of the 14 seats on the Dental Board of Novia Scotia licensing agency.
In Monday’s statement, Florizone described the students’ Facebook comments as “deeply offensive and completely unacceptable.” While promising “significant consequences” in response to the situation, he underlined the need for a “just process” which “supports the rights of everyone involved.”
McGill University professor Shaheen Shariff, an expert on the legal and policy aspects of cyber-bullying, noted that the case comes to light after a wave of online and physical sexual harassment in Canada and the United States.
“Over the last year, various forms of sexual violence and misogyny have been exposed through news and social media within the highest levels of Canadian government, media organizations, and universities across North America,” she told the PanAm Post.
Shariff highlighted the decision of the University of Virginia to ban fraternity houses on campus in November over their alleged perpetration of misogyny, and recent news reports analyzing allegedly endemic rape culture throughout Canadian universities.
Nevertheless, she described the response of higher education authorities nationwide as “inconsistent,” noting the controversy over Dalhousie’s restorative justice proposals. Shariff argued that the media and relevant authorities in such cases have to walk a tightrope in balancing the rights of victims and alleged perpetrators.
“Decision-makers have to bear in mind that exposing allegations would place them in a compromised position of being judged by the ‘court of public opinion’ before being judged in a court of law,” she said. As an example, Shariff mentioned the case of former CBC radio presenter Jian Gomeshi, who lost his job after being embroiled in a sexual assault scandal in October, prior to facing formal charges.