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IN MY OPINION

Our courts, not our schools, should punish student rioters

UBC made the right call on a student who was involved in the Stanley Cup riot.

By NOAH SARNA | JUL 04 2011

The 1990s were a simpler time.

People on subway trains would stand next to each other awkwardly, unsure where to place their gaze. You would have to be near a computer, television or newspaper to get the skinny on current events. Businessmen and women would keep their eyes ahead of them when darting ambitiously down busy sidewalks, instead of staring nervously into their palms.

The good old days. Back then, most youthful indiscretions could be carried out, well, discreetly, irrelevant to your family and your future, unless you crossed a line, someone ratted you out or you were overwhelmed by a need for atonement.

For most of the Vancouver’s Stanley Cup rioters, what they did was more than a youthful lapse of judgment: it was criminal. The vandalism, violence and theft were obscene. They broke the law and shattered our moral expectations and self-identity.

Our impulse for justice has been unforgiving. More than that, we have made it personal. Many of the rioters were rabble, people we expect to behave like that. But our urge for retribution is mainly directed at the normal folks – the young adults, including high school and university students, who were out having a good time, had a bit too much to drink and let the hysteria of the moment carry them into the pages of the Criminal Code of Canada.

We reserve most of our anger for these “otherwise good” students because they should have known better. They remind us of the other people throughout history who did what was fun or easy instead of doing what was right, whose consent or blind participation led to catastrophes of human suffering.

Who should we expect to discipline these students? Certainly the courts, since they did something illegal, and their parents, to the extent they still have any influence. But what else should be done to make sure justice is served? In particular, should a rioter’s school or university take a turn at pounding the gavel?

Camille Cacnio, a University of British Columbia (UBC) student, was caught on video (later posted on YouTube) walking out of a formalwear store during the riot carrying two pairs of men’s pants. She quickly became one of the unlikely characters we have latched on to in order to personify the riot. She was identified and shamed online, where information about her personal life has been shared and parsed apart. She was fired from her job at an Acura dealership. Social media sheriffs have even encouraged people unhesitatingly to stop donating to a charity she was associated with, and UBC donors have been urged to give elsewhere if she is not expelled.

UBC, for its part, is not budging. Scott Macrae, the director of UBC public affairs, told the Ubyssey, the student newspaper, that no disciplinary action is forthcoming. “We let the police and the courts determine discipline in events like this,” he said. “University discipline really refers to the university community, its members and its property, not to something that is outside of that.”

This is the right decision, even if it might cost UBC in fundraising dollars. Rioters are being pursued, students and non-students alike, and if there is no significant connection between their shameful actions and the campus community a university should not be expect to take any further steps. Each student has many identities; the fact that a rioter may be enrolled at a school is incidental to what happened. Camille Cacnio’s relationship to UBC is only harped on by the media to make what she did sound all the more shocking.

Had the riot been on a university campus or involved fights among university students, it would have been a different story entirely. When zealous anti-Israel students rioted at Concordia University in Montreal almost a decade ago, university officials were right to take action. But without a campus connection, UBC would have a hard time justifying an expulsion and may find itself on the losing end of a lawsuit from any student rioter.

The same goes for any high school, which would likely be better served by using the riot as an opportunity to teach students of the range of consequences for this sort of behavior. Teenagers have more brittle identities and levels of self-esteem than university-age students, with parents who likely are feeling the heat themselves and have more control over their children’s lives, which would make any student dream of a simpler time.

Like the 1990s.

Noah Sarna is a Vancouver lawyer with an expertise on legal issues affecting schools and universities. He is the co-author of The Law of Schools and Universities (LexisNexis: Toronto, 2007) and has a blog on education law at www.educationlawblog.ca.

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