Toronto Star

Western students plan walkout after reports of sexual assaults, beating death

London university community calls for better protection after an allegedly violent start to year

- ISABEL TEOTONIO, ALYSHAH HASHAM, JENNA MOON AND DANICA SAMUEL

LONDON, ONT.—Taped to a door at the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence of Western University hangs a poster that says, “See something. Do Something.”

In four words it encapsulat­es the feelings of unease, and calls to action, that have surfaced at the residence, and on a campus, where students are still reeling over allegation­s of sexual assault.

“Students are feeling frustrated and angry,” said fourth-year student Ziyana Kotadia.

“Many of our students don’t feel safe, in residence or on campus. It’s definitely been a difficult few days for our students.”

“The fear, understand­ably, results from not knowing all of the details of what happened,” said Kotadia, also the vice-president for university affairs for the University Students’ Council.

What transpired at the residence last weekend remains unclear, but a rash of social media postings allege female students were drugged and sexually assaulted. London police have been investigat­ing three earlier complaints of sexual violence involving four female students — as well as the beating death of first-year student Gabriel Neil — but have not yet received any formal complaints about other alleged incidents.

“This past weekend the London police service became aware of reports circulatin­g on social media with relation to allegation­s that a number of female students residing at Medway-Sydenham Hall at Western University were drugged and sexually assaulted over the weekend.

Some reports suggest 30 or more students may have been victimized,” said London police chief Steve Williams at a media conference on Tuesday, as he urged victims to come forward.

Police are actively investigat­ing and going door to door at the 613-bed residence known as Med-Syd, speaking with students and seeking any witnesses or victims.

Police are also investigat­ing three reports of alleged sexual assault involving four female students last week in other locations on campus, but provided no further informatio­n on whether they occurred during frosh events or whether drugs or alcohol were involved. A male student was arrested in connection with one of the cases but has been released from custody, Williams said. No charges have been laid.

The allegation­s of sexual violence surfaced during Orientatio­n Week, which began Sept. 6 and ended Sunday. That same weekend, Neil, 18, was violently assaulted and suffered life-threatenin­g injuries. He died in hospital Sunday evening. Police have arrested Aliyan Ahmed, 21, who is charged with manslaught­er. Police say there is no connection between Neil’s death and the alleged sexual assaults.

Western University president Alan Shepard has stated “sexual violence will never be tolerated on our campus.” He called the social media reports “very disturbing” and said “Western is working around the clock to gather the facts and act upon them.”

On campus on Tuesday, the atmosphere was tense, with some students whispering about recent orientatio­n week events, others expressing fear for their safety and still others voicing frustratio­n over the school’s reputation for parties.

Many students refused to talk to reporters, but some who spoke to the Star said they witnessed drunkennes­s and others behaving inappropri­ately towards their peers at parties over the course of frosh week. Some students said they received mixed messages from their sophs — the orientatio­n volunteers — or residence dons: Some saying to go out in groups, while others telling them to avoid off-campus clubs and parties.

Paula Gomez, a 19-year-old third-year student, recalled her own Frosh week experience­s after arriving from Mexico in 2019, saying she was shocked by what she witnessed.

“I was like looking to my sides, and there were a lot of visibly intoxicate­d, girls, and a lot of guys who were trying to get closer to them and touching them inappropri­ately.”

Luke Nocera, 19, a second-year neuroscien­ce student, said “residence is supposed to be a safe place for all the students and it’s just clearly not that.”

“There is this reputation that at Western there’s a lot of predatory behaviour … It’s kind of baked into the culture of the school and they have to change that.”

His comments are echoed, in part, by the mother of a first-year Western student. She asked the Star not to identify her, so as to protect her son.

“I am so angry,” she told the Star. “I’m fearful for my kid. And I’m fearful for those women.”

Her son told her that people he knew had been hanging out at Med-Syd over the weekend, but left when things got out of control with women falling down drunk.

The mother shared her frustratio­n in a signed letter emailed to the university’s president and his team, calling on them to “swiftly address the ongoing culture of toxic masculinit­y at Western.”

“Like the parents of Gabriel Neil, we dropped off our 18-year old son a week ago at Western. He was excited, full of optimism and eager for us to get out so he could settle in, meet new friends, and get adjusted to university life,” she wrote. “A week later, he is scared, disappoint­ed and based on the school’s handling so far of the events last week, resigned to believing he is alone and that this behaviour is tolerated by Western’s leadership.”

At the media conference Tuesday, the university president said the safety of students is a priority. “We are calling those who may have experience­d this to help us get informatio­n in order to investigat­e this,” Shepard said. He also stressed that students and survivors of sexual assault can access supports at the university. Western has increased security in its residences and has on-site confidenti­al counsellin­g and specialize­d gender-based violence and survivor support profession­als available.

Some are demanding more action. On Tuesday, a petition launched on change.org was circulated by students calling on the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universiti­es to conduct a “full formal investigat­ion into Western University.”

In response, Minister Jill Dunlop said the Ontario government “strongly condemns all forms of violence” and “no one should have to worry about sexual violence on or off campus.” She said her office has been working to create regulatory changes that will strengthen college and university sexual violence policies. Updated policies will be announced in the coming weeks.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford also weighed in on Twitter, writing: “As the father of four young women, I am beyond disgusted to hear about the allegation­s of sexual assault that took place at Western University last week. All victims of sexual violence deserve justice. All students should feel safe on campus.”

Anova, a gender-based shelter in London, said it is setting up a safe space at Western to support students on campus. Counsellor­s will be on campus Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night to provide drop-in support to students.

After the allegation­s of sexual violence surfaced, third-year student Hayden Van Neck joined about 20 others in starting an Instagram page aimed at organizing a student walkout on Friday to address their concerns.

“There needs to be some serious institutio­nal change to actually prevent things like this happening in the future,” Van Neck said of the allegation­s of sexual violence. “We want protection for our students. The programs in place right now are mostly for aftercare, so we’re hoping for prevention ... and essentiall­y trying to understand the underlying issues within the institutio­n like misogyny that lead to sexual assault and gender-based violence.”

Along with the call to action and plans for a walkout, they’re calling for better training for sophs and dons as well as the mandatory distributi­on of educationa­l material on gender-based and sexual violence. They would also like the university to clarify sexual assault reporting procedures.

Gomez, who is also helping to organize the walkout, said she hopes to take their fight “across many schools.”

“It’s not just about Western University,” she said, adding it’s about rape culture on university campuses.

Van Neck said they are prioritizi­ng finding and supporting the survivors of any abuse. “This is just the start.”

 ?? NICOLE OSBORNE FOR THE TORONTO STAR ?? Anova, a genderbase­d shelter in London, Ont., is setting up a safe space at Western University to support students. Counsellor­s will be on campus Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night to provide drop-in support.
NICOLE OSBORNE FOR THE TORONTO STAR Anova, a genderbase­d shelter in London, Ont., is setting up a safe space at Western University to support students. Counsellor­s will be on campus Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night to provide drop-in support.

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