Nova Scotia

Dalhousie dentistry Facebook scandal prompts protest

Hundreds marched across Dalhousie University's campus on Monday, protesting how the Halifax university has handled the postings made on the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen Facebook page.

Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario asks for the names of the suspended students

Hundreds listen to speakers at Monday's Dalhousie protest. (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

Hundreds marched across Dalhousie University's campus on Monday, protesting how the Halifax university has handled the students behind sexually explicit postings made on the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen Facebook page.

The fourth-year male dentistry students' sexual comments about female classmates included a poll about having "hate" sex with female students and drugging women.

On Monday, the university announced the 13 members of the controversial group have been suspended from all clinic activities in the program, pending consideration by the faculty of dentistry's academic standards class committee.

The Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario has written a letter to the Dalhousie school of dentistry requesting the names of the 13 students.

Registrar Irwin Fefergrad said is the licensing body's mandate to protect the public interest.

“As a regulatory body we were concerned that if these students, soon to be doctors, if they applied for licence here in Ontario, we would want to know who they are and we asked for disclosure of their names to us.”

Fefergrad said the letter also expressed concern that restorative justice may not be appropriate under these circumstances.

If presented with an application from one of the 13 students, Fefergrad said, he would assess it on a case by case basis.

“I will absolutely make inquiries of these students as to what their conduct was and the details of the conduct, then make a determination,” he said.

Fefergrad said he wonders if people with this kind of moral conduct are suitable to practice.

Jennifer Nowoselski, vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union, said Monday's action is a practical first step to ensuring public safety and the safety of students, but doesn't change much else.

"The university needs to follow the things that we've been asking for," she said. "We've been asking them for anonymous ways for folks to report incidents on campus and asking for a student advocate so that the university knows the services that are lacking or non-existent for students."

'We did have a lot of complaints'

Nowoselski said the student union heard reports of problems in the dentistry school months ago.

"We did have a lot of complaints from the faculty of dentistry over the summer and we brought those complaints directly to the president," she said. "We were directed to the office of human rights where we were told about the two processes available, including the restorative justice process."

She said over the summer, the students didn't feel comfortable moving forward with restorative justice because they could not remain anonymous.

"We need alternative processes in place so students have different options and decide how they want to participate in processes moving forward," Nowoselski said. "That could include coming forward anonymously."

Françoise Baylis, Canada research chair in bioethics and philosophy at Dalhousie, is one of the four professors who has issued a formal complaint about the Facebook group's postings.

She said she is pleased that some action has been taken. 

"[I'm] a little bit surprised that this is taking place at this late date. This is the kind of activity that I would have expected to have seen in early December being done by the Faculty of Dentistry. I think this is something that could, and should, have been done much earlier," she told CBC's Maritime Noon on Monday.

'Credible reports' of self-harm

The announcement by the Halifax university was made today as it reopened following the holiday break, but the decision to suspend the men was made Dec. 22. As well, while most students returned to classes today, the fourth-year dentistry students at the centre of the controversy won't resume classes until Jan. 12.

Dalhousie president Richard Florizone said Monday the announcement of suspensions was delayed because the school's administration had received "credible reports from front-line staff" that some of the men involved were at risk of self-harm.

He said the announcement was made once the students were back in Halifax and had access to counselling services. 

Baylis argues the announcement should have been made earlier.

"I'm deeply confused and concerned about the timing. One of the things that we've just learned today is that this decision about the clinical suspension was made on Dec. 22. It's Jan. 5. On what grounds do you justify withholding that information until Jan. 5? And the only explanation we're given … 'is to ensure the appropriate supports were available for the students,'" said Baylis.

"Well, these were students who in many cases were going home to families. Are we assuming that home is not a supportive environment?"

'Always own what you do' 

Kathleen MacDougall, a second-year student in the therapeutic recreation program, said the clinic suspensions are a good first step.  

"There's probably going to be more repercussions I think," she said. "It's good they took this step. They're probably going to have to take more steps but this was a good first step."

"I wouldn't want to be talked about that way," said Chelsea Batten, a first-year engineering student. 

First-year engineering student Jeremy Wyat agrees the decision to suspend could have been made sooner. 

"They made a little too much stress about it, they took too long to make the decision I think," he said.

"It was pretty messed up, what they said. It wasn't just normal joking around so I think they shouldn't have pushed it under the rug in the beginning. It's hard on the university, these things, because it's a really touchy subject right now. I think they did good in the end though."

In terms of whether people in the administration should step down over the scandal, Baylis said that's complicated.  

"My perspective is you always own what you do. I do believe that mistakes have been made in terms of how this has been handled. I don't know who has made which mistakes, but I do believe if you want to go forward in a positive way, it's always good to be truthful because the truth will [get] out, in any case."  

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