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In an e-mail to students, President Alan Shepard and the presidents of Western University’s affiliated colleges warned that the anticipated street parties pose serious risks.Nicole OSBORNE/The Canadian Press

The University of Western Ontario is urging students to stay away from street parties this weekend, while police and public-health officials brace for the return of rowdy homecoming gatherings that in the past have attracted tens of thousands of people and pushed emergency services to their limit.

The university is already reeling from allegations of sexual assault and the death of a student in the first weeks of term. President Alan Shepard said last week that Western needs to address what he called a “culture problem,” which he described as an excessive focus on drinking and partying.

In an e-mail to students this week, Dr. Shepard and the presidents of the university’s affiliated colleges warned that the anticipated street parties pose serious risks.

“The potential for injury and violence is real,” the e-mail said. “Please choose to avoid these highly dangerous events.”

London Mayor Ed Holder also implored students to avoid the festivities. At a news conference this week he said the city will have a significant police presence and will not hesitate to issue fines. (In years past London has imported officers from elsewhere in Ontario to cope with the crowds.) But even with those precautions, the Mr. Holder said the situation simply isn’t safe.

“I’m terribly concerned that another student is going to get hurt, or worse. I think Western in just a few short weeks has been through enough already,” the mayor said.

On campus, signs of the turmoil that has engulfed the university remained.

The rolling lawn in front of University College still showed wear and tear from the 10,000 students who marched out of class last Friday to demand changes to what they described as a harmful campus culture.

At Medway-Sydenham Hall, a residence where police have gone door to door investigating allegations that young women were drugged and in some cases sexually assaulted, signs saying “I believe you” and “I stand with survivors” were affixed to the exterior gates.

Last week police and university administrators said they had received no information about the allegations, which originated on social media. Police said they continue to investigate but had no further updates on the case.

Dr. Shepard announced that the university will hire a third party to investigate concerns raised by students about this year’s orientation week. In addition to the allegations involving the residence, the university received four complaints of sexual assault in its first week of term. It also continues to mourn 18-year-old first-year student Gabriel Neil, who died in hospital Sept. 12 after an altercation. One man has been charged with manslaughter and a second is being sought by police.

Immediately behind the Medway-Sydenham residence on Broughdale Avenue, city crews worked to clear debris to make the area safe ahead of the expected crowds this weekend.

Broughdale is the traditional focus of the off-campus street parties that occur during homecoming weekend. In 2019, the crowd on this single residential cul-de-sac was estimated at more than 20,000, with people filling every inch of street and some even climbing onto roofs. The local health unit has issued orders limiting indoor gatherings to a maximum of 25 people and outdoor gatherings to 100 people, to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The Broughdale parties have been a concern for years. In 2016 Western moved its Homecoming to late October, when the weather is less favourable, in response to police concerns about public safety. But students continued to gather anyway for what they called Fake Homecoming in late September, and the crowds grew even larger. Last year was an exception, because of the pandemic. This year the university returned Homecoming to its usual time, but its official events are almost entirely online, apart from the traditional football game. The large student gatherings are unsanctioned, the university said.

Yalda Sinaei, a fourth-year student who shares a house on Broughdale with two classmates, said the street parties are always wild. Usually it’s fun, she added, but this year is different.

“The mood this time has shifted. Instead of being excited about it, we’re stressed, we’re nervous, we’re unsure what’s going to happen. And COVID doesn’t help either.”

She said she expects their street will be swarmed by students. In years past she has heard of revellers falling and being trampled in the crowd.

“Obviously, people are drunk, they’re doing stupid stuff,” Ms. Sinaei said. “It’s a dangerous situation.”

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