Fears of 'self harm' among dental students suspended at Dalhousie over 'gender violent' Facebook Postings

January 2015

Thirteen dentistry students at Halifax’s Dalhousie University who were part of a “gentlemen’s” Facebook group were suspended over outrageous and offensive Facebook posts about female colleagues, the school’s president said Monday in a disciplinary announcement delayed by fears the male students were in danger of self harm over the scandal.

As the suspension was announced, fallout from the incident continued with the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario demanding to know the names of students involved, in case any of them apply to practice in the province — assuming they are able to graduate and become doctors.

“I am concerned about the misogynist, sexist, gender violent kind of behaviour.… We would take a good hard look as to whether or not we thought they were suitable to practice,” said Irwin Fefergrad, registrar of Ontario’s dental college, which regulates who can be a dentist in the province.

The social media posts — which included suggestions dentistry anesthetics be used to subdue female classmates prior to rape and a vote on the relative aggressive sexual interest in various classmates in the school’s small Faculty of Dentistry — were made over three years in a private Facebook group for the school’s male dental students.

The 13 fourth-year students allegedly involved have been suspended from clinical activities while the case is under review, which will, at least temporarily, prevent them from acquiring a degree because dentistry students are required to complete work in dental clinics as part of their studies.

“The suspension is necessary to ensure a safe and supportive environment for patients and classmates who participate in the clinics,” said university president Richard Florizone and Tom Boran, dean of the Faculty of Dentistry, in a joint statement released Monday.

The university said other disciplinary measures and broader action is still pending.

Despite the high-profile nature of the dentistry scandal that was known to the university in early December, and the school’s decision to suspend the students being made before Christmas, the announcement was held back until the resumption of classes because of concerns for the safety of those suspended and to ensure appropriate on-campus support was available to them.

“We had credible reports from our frontline staff of potential self-harm,” Mr. Florizone told reporters. “We took those seriously and so that concern for student safety overrode our concern about communicating this publicly.”

Dalhousie’s administration became aware of the posts on Dec. 8 by a student who was affected by the commentary, Mr. Florizone said. The student, apparently a female dentistry student, had been referred to his office after first complaining to the university’s Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention office.

A week later, the Facebook group and some of its posts were published by the CBC, which had been given copies of some of the material after the Facebook page was taken down.

Subsequently, several of the women who were the subject of some of the comments, as well as male members of the Facebook group, came forward to the school’s administration, said Mr. Florizone.

At the time of the Dec. 15 news report, he called the posts “entirely unacceptable and deeply disturbing” and said he would weigh “the full range of options” within 48 hours. The remaining exams for all of the fourth-year dentistry students were postponed.

Two days later, Mr. Florizone issued an updated statement.

“The comments have caused harm broadly — most importantly, to the women who were impacted by these posts, and women in general, but also to our Faculty of Dentistry, to the university and to the dental profession,” he said. The university’s sexual harassment policy provides for either an informal resolution or a formal complaint procedure. The undisclosed number of women chose an informal “restorative justice process,” he said.

That process is confidential but the outcome may become public if those involved deem it appropriate. Mr. Florizone said the school’s obligation was to anyone victimized by the comments, understanding and repairing the harm caused, and then to holding those responsible accountable.

But the swift response then seemed to falter. Despite the university treating the complaints as a priority, nothing more was released until Monday, when the surprise reasons for the delay was revealed.

The university said the suspension allows the Faculty of Dentistry Academic Standards Class Committee to consider the case for possible further action — which could include recommend expulsion.

“Our overall response must also address cultures of sexism, misogyny and sexualized violence. We must ensure an inclusive community that offers a healthy and safe learning and working environment for all,” Mr. Florizone said.

But the anonymous restorative justice process is not appropriate in a matter when medical licensing and patient safety is at stake, said Mr. Fefergrad.

“As the chap responsible to protect the public interest for the public in Ontario, I have grave concerns about the attitudes expressed by these students — they’re going to be doctors in a few months,” Mr. Fefergrad said.

He has written to Dalhousie asking for the names of the students involved for future vetting if any apply to be a dentist. If the university declines to release the names to the college, any applicant from Dalhousie will be specially scrutinized, he said.

“We can’t just let it sit.”

The college has not received a response from the school. Calls and emails to Dalhousie’s spokesman were not returned by deadline Monday.