Skip to main content

Through interviews, text messages and e-mails, The Globe has reconstructed a timeline of the crisis that unfolded during last fall’s orientation week, when reports of a mass drugging sent students leaders and police into emergency mode

Open this photo in gallery:

The Medway-Sydenham residence at Western University, shown on Sept. 13 with police cruisers outside, was in an uproar three days earlier. Orientation-week leaders tended to students showing signs of heavy intoxication – which some feared was the result of date-rape drugs.Liam Afonso/The Globe and Mail

When student orientation leaders recall the night that launched Western University’s reckoning with sexual violence, they tend to focus on one image and one phrase.

As they put it, “Girls were dropping like flies.”

They paint a picture of first-year students so intoxicated they couldn’t stand or walk. As many as six or eight young women sprawled on the grass in various locations outside the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence.

The orientation leaders are mostly second- and third-year students known as sophs. They formed human circles around the students to shield them from view as they vomited or cried, a practice common enough at Western to have its own name, the soph circle. The sophs tried to aid the intoxicated students and in some cases were joined by the campus emergency response team or London, Ont.’s EMS.

What struck the sophs was the number of young women affected in a relatively short time, and that it was only women. The sophs were so overrun they had to call for reinforcements from other parts of campus. A creeping worry began to spread among the orientation leaders, who started to discuss it among themselves and with their first-year students.

Over the next several hours, an outpouring of fear and anger found its way to social media. Rumours grew that dozens had been assaulted, and though police interviewed hundreds of people on campus, no charges were ever laid. The story made national headlines. Western’s reputation suffered. The outcry became a full-blown crisis culminating in a student walkout that raised an alarm about campus safety, student conduct and the university’s role in policing it.

In an opinion piece for the Western student newspaper this week, one first-year student said that the aftermath of that week “continues to have a daily impact on my life and the lives of my first-year peers on campus.”

Based on interviews with students, orientation leaders and administrators, as well as group texts from that night and e-mails obtained through freedom of information legislation, this is a portrait of what transpired on the night of Sept. 10, 2021.

Open this photo in gallery:

Students attend a concert on Monday, Sept. 6, the first night of orientation week. Organizing safe events for first-years is a complex annual undertaking at Western, a school with a reputation for hard partying.Yifei Zhang/The Globe and Mail

A Sept. 6 orientation gathering on University College Hill. First-year students are welcomed to campus each year by volunteers called sophs, usually second- or third-year students, whose job includes making sure the newcomers stay safe. Yifei Zhang/The Globe and Mail
Student council president Zamir Fakirani, middle, stands with vice-presidents Maddie Osborne and Callista Ryan. He says fixating on the number of assaults is a distraction from the ‘very real and dangerous threat of violence’ students face. Liam McInnis/The Globe and Mail

To understand the significance of the events of that Friday night, it helps to examine the outcry that resulted. At 9 a.m. on the following Sunday a woman named Hannah Martin tweeted: “Can we just talk about the fact that 30 girls at western university were drugged this weekend, and two sexually assaulted and it is nowhere to be found on the news (I legitimately found out through comment section of a tik tok).”

Her post, which was later e-mailed among university administrators, was retweeted more than 27,000 times and received more than 100,000 likes.

The tweet had some powerful elements. It suggested a conspiracy to drug and assault vulnerable young women, a complacent or complicit media that had failed to cover it and it was directed at an audience mobilized via social media in the #MeToo movement to tackle a social ill too long ignored. About two hours later, as the tweet raced around the Internet, she published a follow-up. “Before this blows up anymore I should say that this is all alleged. I don’t live in London or attend Western.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Media began to tentatively report on the rumours. Students and others roused via social media started to discuss what had fast become treated as fact: that large numbers of women had been drugged and sexually assaulted at the Medway-Sydenham residence that night. Some wrongly speculated that the tragic killing of a student, 18-year-old Gabriel Neil, who suffered a fatal injury in a confrontation near campus that night, was somehow related. It wasn’t, according to police, although his death rattled the community and contributed to a sense of alarm. Two men from London have been charged in that case.

By Monday afternoon, police announced they were opening an investigation based not on a complaint, as is usually the procedure, but on unverified accounts circulating on social media. At a news conference, London’s police chief, Stephen Williams, said he had seen messages on TikTok and Twitter that claimed as many as 30 students had been drugged and sexually assaulted in residence that Friday night. The seriousness of the allegations warranted action, the chief said. At Western’s invitation, the police sent detectives door to door in residence.

Days later, as outrage swelled on campus, students walked out of class en masse. More than 10,000 gathered on the university lawn to demand an end to sexual violence and to a toxic campus culture they said endangers students. The university president, Alan Shepard, said Western’s culture had to change. The administration beefed up security and made sexual-violence prevention training mandatory for all first-year students living in residence.

But in the weeks and months that followed, no one came forward to report an incident of drugging or sexual assault. Police, gender-based violence experts and university officials all stress it’s not unusual in cases of sexual assault for victims to delay reporting or to not report at all. But for some, it raised doubts. Leaving aside the alleged sexual assaults, if a mass drugging occurred on campus, why would no victims or witnesses come forward?

Competing narratives took hold. Either what occurred at Med-Syd was overblown, or it didn’t happen, or it was a shocking incident that required a response. Some students and parents settled on one of those answers, others landed somewhere in the middle. But the truth remained elusive.

Open this photo in gallery:
Open this photo in gallery:

Students march toward Med-Syd during Sept. 17's walkout. More than 10,000 people took part.Liam McInnis/The Globe and Mail

Med-Syd is really two residences connected by a tunnel. Built in the collegiate gothic style with inner courtyards protected by wrought-iron gates, the buildings sit just on the other side of the Thames River from Western’s main campus.

On that now infamous Friday, orientation week was in full swing. The main event was a drag show taking place on campus, but not all students attended and the two dozen Med-Syd sophs, who are unpaid volunteers, prepared for a night of supervising students around the residence. Students were drinking in small groups, mainly in dorm rooms with the occasional gathering that spilled into a hallway. Alcohol is banned in residences and at campus events during orientation week, but many students drink regardless, the sophs say. Sophs are meant to be mentors to first-years and, unlike dons and paid residence staff, are not expected to discipline first-year students found breaking the rules.

Heavy drinking has been part of campus culture among students at Western for decades. Roughly 5,000 students live in residence, one of the larger on-campus populations among Canadian universities. The school is known for its rah-rah spirit, purple sweatshirts and hard partying. Accounts of a sexually charged atmosphere, and sexual misconduct, have also simmered below the surface.

A 2018 survey of student experiences of sexual violence found more than 70 per cent of respondents at Western reported having been sexually harassed. In the 2017-18 academic year, nearly one in three respondents at Western said they had been sexually assaulted (defined as a non-consensual sexual experience), about 10 points higher than the average for Ontario universities.

Early that Friday evening, the sophs who walked the halls in Med-Syd say they saw nothing out of the ordinary. A first-year student recalled sipping coolers from plastic Solo cups while getting ready to go out with friends. A short while later, a residence don came around to each room telling students to transfer their drinks to a bottle with a lid. The student said she assumed that was to protect against the possibility that someone might slip something into a drink.

Open this photo in gallery:

The sidewalk outside Med-Syd.Liam McInnis/The Globe and Mail

Around 10:15 p.m., someone set off a fire alarm, forcing everyone outside.

The students, a cohort that spent much of the previous year in lockdowns and home schooling, milled around outside in a rowdy mass. As emergency vehicles arrived with lights flashing and sirens wailing, orientation leaders tried to corral everyone out of the building. Although false alarms are common in residence, sophs were still anxious to ensure everyone’s safety as they dealt with drunken and sometimes unco-operative students.

The sophs say they quickly ran into a problem. There were students so intoxicated it was hard to get them out of the building. One recalled seeing a young woman removed from the building on a stretcher.

“The girl was just completely unconscious,” the soph said. (The Globe and Mail isn’t identifying the sophs interviewed because they weren’t authorized to speak about what happened.) She thought the degree of intoxication and lack of responsiveness of some of these students was beyond what she had ever seen. Drunk people will typically try to walk, even if they do it badly. These students weren’t always able to.

Around 10:45 p.m., a second fire alarm sounded, bringing fire crews back and adding to the sense of disorder. Someone had sprayed an entire floor with a fire extinguisher, releasing chemicals and a smoky foam that covered the floor and walls of a hallway.

The same soph got phone calls from other team members struggling to get another incapacitated student out of the building. She ran inside while the alarm sounded and found her team trying to carry out a young woman.

This student also looked unconscious, the soph said. They lifted her like a dead weight, bringing her downstairs and outside.

“As bad as this sounds, we literally just had to drop her on the grass. And then at this point, this is when [students] started dropping like flies,” she said. “I started to see [a large number] of people just lined up in the grass with soph circles going on.”

Open this photo in gallery:

The lawn between Medway Hall and Alumni House, where the intoxicated students recovered.Liam McInnis/The Globe and Mail

The Globe spoke with nine sophs who describe a similar scene: a number of young women so intoxicated that they needed help.

Opinions differ among sophs on whether those stricken had merely had too much to drink, or had been unknowingly drugged. They have no evidence, such as a drug test or a medical diagnosis, to indicate drugging. But the degree of intoxication, and what some described as an absence of the smell of alcohol, raised suspicion. Others later said those who fell ill said they’d only had a few drinks.

The sophs could not see any obvious connections among those who became ill. They didn’t come from one floor or one group of friends, nor is there any indication they’d partied with a particular group in a particular place. But they were all women.

So many women falling ill at once raised suspicion among the sophs. But it does not seem to have prompted anyone to immediately raise an alarm or ask for special medical or police intervention.

A spokeswoman from London EMS said no one was transported by ambulance from campus that night. She said that a patient believed to have been given a noxious substance would have prompted EMS to notify police and would have required a trip to hospital for assessment. Neither of those happened, she said.

The sophs say the students were treated mainly by Western’s student emergency response team, students who hold first-aid certification and undergo some training.

The sophs say as far as they know, most of the ill students recovered on the scene. London’s Health Sciences Centre, which includes the university hospital, said on the weekend of Sept. 10-12 it had five or fewer visits due to assaults of all kinds, including sexual assaults, for adults aged 18-21. There were 15 visits as a result of excess drinking among that age group, although there is no way of knowing how many were Western students.

The chief of emergency medicine, Christine MacDonald, said it would not be standard to test for drugs, even if the patient requested it, unless the information could influence treatment decisions. She said it can be difficult to select which drug to test for. Patients concerned they’d been drugged would often be referred to the sexual assault and domestic violence team for further support, she said.

The statistics suggest that if there was a large group of people assaulted or drugged or both, the vast majority did not seek medical help.

The sophs who spoke to the Globe report seeing six or eight young women they suspected may have been drugged. It’s possible that they were seeing different people at different times, so the total may be higher, and it’s also possible there was overlap.

But where did the number 30 come from? And how did it spark such a public reckoning for the university?

Open this photo in gallery:

Police patrol a residential street during homecoming festivities on Sept. 25. The sexual-assault allegations raised official concerns about Western's party culture.Nicole Osborne/The Canadian Press

The drugs most often associated with drug-facilitated sexual assault include GHB, Ketamine or Rohypnol, a benzodiazepine whose shortened name “roofie” has become a synonym for predatory drugging.

Studies have found that the use of so-called date-rape drugs is relatively rare. One study of urine samples from rape treatment centres in the U.S. found alcohol in 69 per cent of the samples, GHB in 3 per cent and flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) in less than 1 per cent.

Still, the U.S. Department of Justice says police reports indicate these drugs are widely available on the black market. When dissolved and mixed in a drink, they are usually colourless, odourless and hard to detect. They induce symptoms in 15 to 30 minutes that would not be easy to distinguish from drunkenness, like sleepiness or nausea, although GHB can produce stronger effects such as confusion and amnesia. These drugs are also processed quickly inside the body and leave the system within hours, meaning testing needs to be done usually within a day if they’re to be detected. And they aren’t the only drugs that can produce a similar effect.

In an interview with The Globe after the events of frosh week, Dr. Shepard, Western’s president, said the allegations about drugging were particularly chilling, because, if true, they suggested planning and deliberation. He also said that the specific number of sexual assaults referred to on social media, 30, was shockingly high.

In the three years before 2021, an average of 19 assaults per year were reported to the university, with a high of 24 in 2018-19, although there likely were others that went unreported.

Dr. Shepard said that the university had received five reports of sexual assaults on campus in the two weeks surrounding the start of the fall term. To the best of his knowledge, he said, none was related to Medway-Sydenham on that particular weekend. One student was arrested by London police but released without charge.

When asked what really happened that night at Med-Syd to spark the social media allegations, Dr. Shepard said, “I don’t know if I have an answer to that question. I’ll just go back to the police [who say] that they have no recorded cases. And they’ve interviewed 600 people.”

Dr. Shepard said the events of that weekend at Med-Syd are being examined as part of an independent inquiry led by Massey College principal Nathalie Des Rosiers, a former MPP and law professor. Her report is expected this spring and will be released publicly.

Dr. Shepard added that universities, like other institutions, are grappling with a pervasive social problem.

“We are a microcosm of the larger world,” he said. “It’s not just universities. Sexual assault continues to be this pernicious, terrible scourge on society.”

In the week after the Med-Syd allegations surfaced, Dr. Shepard changed a Western policy to address a concern raised by students. In the past, students accused of sexual wrongdoing were moved from one residence to another, but not removed from campus, while their case was adjudicated. Now they were required to leave campus. As a result of the change, four or five students were moved out of residence. He could not say whether those students were connected to the alleged incidents at Med-Syd, he said, because the identifying details were kept from him under confidentiality rules.

Looking back, he said it was a difficult situation but he acted quickly and demanded major changes.

“You have to acknowledge you’re often trying to make responses to the situation in the absence of facts. That’s part of leadership. You can’t wait for every fact to be nailed down before you act.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Students take part in homecoming week celebrations around the Western campus on Sept. 25.Nicole Osborne/The Canadian Press

Around 11:40 p.m. on Friday night, the soph circles outside Med-Syd were clearing up and the fire department was allowing students back inside. Chris Alleyne, a Western housing administrator, had just sent an e-mail recapping the events of what he called a very busy night, including the two fire alarms that sent 600 students into the street. He said there was lots of drunkenness and the crowds wouldn’t have looked good to passersby, but he made no mention of concerns about drugging or sexual assault.

Meanwhile a 15-person group chat among the female soph leaders started to buzz with new messages. The young women believed something was going on and felt it was their duty to warn others.

“Hey gals so I believe I had the first case of roofie/spiked drink two nights ago with one on my own floor,” the message thread began. “There have been multiple more cases that occurred between now and my case. Now we would like to gather all victims from your floors.”

One senior soph leader advised the others to raise the issue gently with their students, saying talking about it could help catch whoever was responsible. Others immediately started posting the names of male students who they believed might be involved, such as a student who kept a “tally chart” of women in his dorm room, or the “boys who do cocaine,” adding caveats such as “rumours only tho.”

One or two of the female sophs said they knew of students with stories to tell, and asked where to direct them.

A senior soph replied they should be directed to residence and student life management, the professionals who run Med-Syd. She asked: “Is there any soph who is with a student right now that has a story?”

One soph replied “Guys I have over 30 girls. [I don’t know] all their numbers. So how should I contact them?”

Some may have interpreted her post to mean she knew of 30 victims.

“You have 30 girls who are saying they’ve been roofied?” one asked.

“No,” was the reply, and then the discussion moved on.

But the use of the number 30 in that message, which was shared with 15 people who may have shared it with others, points to a possible source of its appearance in the reports that alleged that many students had been drugged and assaulted.

The group chat continued with speculative posts about who might be involved. One said a residence don had advised her to be cautious if she planned to text a warning to every female student on the floor. The don said that spreading such a rumour wasn’t a good idea.

The soph commented to the group, “I’m not spreading a fucking rumour...This is real shit that’s actually happening.”

“Even if the rumours weren’t true this is still an important conversation to have,” another soph said.

Finally the group discussed a story told to a soph that night by one of the first-year students. She said she and a friend were offered a drink of cloudy liquid from a clear, crumpled plastic bottle by a male student. The first-year student said she was told it was vodka but something about it was off-putting.

“We both said no and he was super pushy to get us to have some. When we kept saying no he said something about us being boring and how we should loosen up,” she said.

Another soph relayed a similar story from another student.

“In the tunnels she and her friend were offered ‘vodka’ out of a water bottle by a guy and they said no. The water bottle was cloudy white.”

The tunnels are the underground connection that links the Medway and Sydenham buildings. If there was someone in that location pushing tainted drinks it would give them access to a number of passersby moving between the two residences.

Drawing on the descriptions offered by the students, the sophs continued to speculate about who could be responsible.

Open this photo in gallery:

University College, home of the arts and humanities faculty, is a distinctive Western landmark.Liam McInnis/The Globe and Mail

While that chat was going on, many of the sophs were also sending messages to the first-year students in their groups.

One of those messages said “there’s been a couple cases of roofies/date rape in Med-Syd. I’ve heard it through the other sophs and their froshes…We don’t know who the guy is for sure but just to be on the safe side nobody leave any girl alone, do not take any drinks from anyone…these kinds of guys never stop until they’re caught.”

The message ended with an offer to talk if anyone needed it.

One student read the message and decided she had something important to discuss. It was just after midnight when she tearfully called her soph and asked her to come to her room to speak face to face.

A few nights earlier, on the Tuesday, the female student recounted, she had been chatting with a small group outside Med-Syd. She was newly arrived at Western, drinking a pink, alcoholic drink and looking forward to frosh week events after spending much of the previous year cooped up at home due to the pandemic.

A young man in a flannel shirt introduced himself. The two spoke for about 10 minutes as part of a larger group. The female student announced she needed something from her room. When she left, the young man followed. Surprised but flattered, she chatted with him. When they arrived at her door she didn’t invite him in but he followed her inside and kissed her.

She was very drunk, but the kissing was consensual, the young woman said. However, she said she was clear that she did not want to go further. The two undressed. She said she told the young man that she had not had sex before and that she did not want to do so now. She never changed her mind, she said.

Her memory of what followed was foggy but she says it was a case of gender-based violence. She remembers the moments after it was over, as she realized what had happened – something to which she had not consented. The young man got up, asked for directions to the bathroom and left, never to return.

“Some things happened in there that were not very good, that I didn’t want to happen,” the woman said.

The Globe and Mail is not revealing the woman’s name because she says she was a victim of sexual assault. She recounted these events in an interview and shared screenshots of text messages that support her account. She said she didn’t come forward immediately because she was embarrassed and afraid she’d be in trouble for being drunk. But three days later, the message from her soph persuaded her to speak up, she said.

The soph immediately notified administrators in the residence, who, despite the late hour, insisted on tracking down the student. At 4 a.m., she met with them in an office in Med-Syd and told them what happened. They asked if she would like to go further, either by speaking to London police or making a formal complaint. She said no, she didn’t want to. She felt safe among her friends. The administrators accepted her position and offered her information on counselling and support.

Word of what had happened to her a few nights earlier was also spreading among some students in the residence. She had told a small group of friends.

Around 3 a.m., some of those friends confronted the young man they believed was responsible. The encounter was recorded on video by one of the participants.

In the video, a male student can be heard responding to questions from a group. His voice is thin and he fumbles for words. He denies doing anything wrong and says he doesn’t see it the way they’re describing, but also says “I didn’t actually ask. I thought it was all kind of a good thing … You’re making it seem like I would be fucking around raping people. That’s not who I am.”

In a text message he sent to the young woman afterward, the male student said he was upset that people were accusing him of mass drugging and calling him a rapist. He said that was not his understanding of what had occurred.

“From my point of view it went nothing [like] the way people are saying you’re explaining it,” he wrote.

“I told you multiple times when we were kissing that I didn’t want to have sex,” she replied. “I was drunk out of my mind and you shouldn’t have gone the whole way with a drunk girl. And you didn’t use protection…”

Open this photo in gallery:

To sophs, the female students who got sick seemed to have little else in common: They weren't from a single floor or friend group, nor had they partied together in a specific place. As the night of Sept. 10 went on, rumours spread among students about who might be responsible.Liam McInnis/The Globe and Mail

The mood had turned in the building over the course of the night. More and more students were discussing what had happened and were starting to believe they faced a crisis within the residence.

Shortly after 3 a.m., a troubling e-mail landed in the inbox of Jacob Clarke, the residence life manager at Med-Syd (he also met with the woman who said she’d been assaulted). Joshua Cavanagh, a residence don, sent a scathing assessment of student behaviour and said he personally knew two students who had been roofied.

“Tonight was another night that was absolutely over the top and out of control and duty staff are hitting their breaking points…staff are very concerned about the safety of this community and we literally have no clue what to do about our concerns since what we are dealing with is so beyond the scope of what should reasonably be expected from our roles,” Mr. Cavanagh wrote.

He said staff were overworked and inadequately prepared for what they faced. Residence dons are also undergraduate students, but unlike sophs are paid staff and live in residence buildings with first-year students. According to Mr. Cavanagh, students were openly disrespectful, skirting rules and giving fake names when called on their bad behaviour.

“This is getting out of hand. Staff can’t keep working at this pace,” Mr. Cavanagh warned. “I have had to intervene on nights I should have had off because students’ conduct was so bad that duty staff could not address what was going on.” Mr. Cavanagh did not respond to an e-mail from the Globe, nor did other dons identified in this story.

It’s not clear how Mr. Clarke, who declined an interview request, responded to that warning, but about 20 minutes later, at 3:30 a.m., he sent an e-mail thanking residence staff, saying, “I know tonight was a lot.”

At 4 a.m., another residence administrator e-mailed an update on the events of the night. The e-mail said a student, referred to only by his initials, was arrested for GBV, or gender-based violence. The student involved was arrested by London Police at Ontario Hall, another Western residence about a kilometre from Med-Syd, and the incidents he was involved in had been reported to the university.

The e-mails went quiet for a while as the night ended around 5 a.m. and staff caught up on missed sleep. But early in the afternoon, the messages picked up again.

At 2:24 p.m. on Saturday, another residence don wrote to Mr. Clarke saying he’d received a text message from a worried parent of a first-year student. The text described disturbing rumours of girls being “unknowingly drugged.”

The text said: “We are extremely concerned as this is not a safe environment. Can you please confirm if this information is true & if so how many girls have been victimized. Additionally, have the police & university administration been notified of this criminal behaviour? What procedures have been implemented to protect the female students.”

The don told Mr. Clarke that he had spoken with the frosh on his floor and many of them seemed scared and uncomfortable.

Less than 15 minutes later, another e-mail arrived from another residence don named Kyle Hendricks. Mr. Hendricks mentioned “high level incidents” involving students on one floor of the residence. He said “large groups of individuals are visiting [the floor] to find these individuals” and “looking to handle things themselves.” He may have been referring to attempts to speak with the male student who was questioned by a group the night before. He was clearly worried about the potential for vigilante violence.

“What actions are being taken to ensure the safety of the [students] in question, while also addressing their alleged actions?,” Mr. Hendricks asked. It’s not clear whether he received a reply.

It was around this time that Madison Budy, a residence don in Med-Syd, spoke to Mr. Clarke over the phone. She later sent an e-mail summarizing their conversation. Her e-mail said that she had spoken to students who had heard troubling accusations from some of their friends, so the information was second or third-hand. It named a person who, the e-mail alleges, was putting substances in drinks. The name is blacked out in the e-mail obtained under freedom of information rules.

“From the knowledge that they shared with me [name redacted] has a fetish of seeing girls intoxicated past the point of functionality, and has been using these incidents as ‘material’ for stimulation,” Ms. Budy wrote. She declined to speak with the Globe.

Just before 5:30 p.m., Mr. Clarke acted. He sent an e-mail to all students in Med-Syd saying they may have heard “rumours regarding incidents of gender-based or sexual violence” in the residence. He said staff were following up on information that had been provided to them and asked others to come forward with details.

Rumours had already started to circulate on social media, but once that e-mail was sent it served as confirmation that something had come to the attention of the university.

Elan Pedersen, a soph in a residence across the street from Med-Syd, wrote to Mr. Clarke a few hours after the e-mail was circulated.

“We have received information from two of our sophs that one of their first years knows the floor and has an idea of some people who may be perpetrators of any drugging or GBV,” Ms. Pedersen wrote.

“We heard that there has been drugging/roofing among first year students and when it was brought up to [residence management] it was dismissed as a rumour. This behaviour should be addressed immediately if it is a rumour because it has many students worried and if it isn’t a rumour, it should also be addressed for the safety of our campus.”

Mr. Clarke replied quickly, saying Ms. Pedersen and her colleague should meet him right away and tell him if they had any specific names associated with these events.

Open this photo in gallery:

Students, one with a sign reading 'we believe you,' march outside Med-Syd on Sept. 17.Liam McInnis/The Globe and Mail

When the police went door to door inside Med-Syd early the following week, the young female student who had come forward to residence staff with her story of sexual assault was very anxious. She asked her friends to speak with police on her behalf to ask what the consequences would be if she were to report an assault. She was reassured that they wouldn’t tell her parents or force her to go public.

She wasn’t sure what she would do until the very last moment. She listened as the officers moved down the hallway, asking the same questions at every door: Have you been a victim of sexual assault, do you know of anyone who was? When the officers arrived at her door she told them that she had a bad experience, but kept it vague and added that she didn’t want to make an official report. She didn’t want to have to relive the experience in some kind of judicial process and felt safe where she was, she explained later. The officers asked for more details but when she declined they accepted her answer and gave her a pamphlet.

About a month later, the police followed up by phone to ask if she had thought more about it and whether she was now interested in making a report. The young woman said no.

So her case will officially never be recorded, and may not be among the five that Western has acknowledged, but it clearly had an impact on her and the students who learned of it. There are other stories, too, that at least some students have heard.

In one case, a soph said she was walking the halls in Med-Syd a couple of days before that Friday night when she came upon a young woman in her room with the door open. The young woman had been vomiting and was crying so hard she struggled to speak. Someone had taken advantage of her in a bathroom, she said. She was agitated and her speech was somewhat incoherent. A friend who was in the room said the woman had only had two drinks that night, including a shot from a bottle offered to her by a male student, and the level of intoxication seemed well beyond what would be expected. The soph said later that she believed the girl had been sexually assaulted and that the incident was reported to a residence don.

There are also second-hand accounts of other incidents but they’re difficult to verify. Several students described hearing of a soph who came upon and disrupted an assault in progress on campus, chased the assailant but failed to catch up with him before he disappeared. A victim was never identified, making it hard to know what really occurred.

Taken together, it seems as though a number of incidents that occurred throughout the week, combined with what some believed to be an attempt to drug young women at Med-Syd that Friday night, sparked a campus crisis. Nearly all students say the conversations and actions that emerged from that moment were necessary, even if the allegations that were first brought on social media haven’t been proven and may have been overstated.

The swirling allegations stemming from that night appear to have had an impact on the university’s reputation. Months after the allegations made national news, statistics showed applications to Western from Ontario students dropped for the coming academic year, one of only a handful of universities in the province to get fewer applications. Applications declined 3.4 per cent, compared to an increase of 5.6 per cent a year ago.

Open this photo in gallery:

Protest signs at Sept. 17's walkout.Liam McInnis/The Globe and Mail

The university has pledged to bring about a change to its campus culture. Dr. Shepard has talked about the need to de-emphasize the partying and heavy drinking that many seem to associate with the first weeks of class to focus on the university’s mission: education and citizenship.

In the wake of the frosh week events, the university increased its security on campus. This winter, following the interim recommendations of a committee on sexual violence, it also committed to a number of staffing and training initiatives. All incoming students will now be required to complete a course before they arrive on campus, described as a 45-minute online module with material on consent and personal safety, as well as bystander training.

First-year students will have to agree to a statement of values as part of accepting their offer of admission. Those in residence will receive in-person gender-based and sexual violence training. Parents will be given in-person seminars on sexual violence and on alcohol use to help influence student behaviour. Training modules for sophs are also being developed, and the university plans to ensure after-hours staff support from professionals, not students, is available in residences. It also promised a wider review of campus culture and safety that is still under way.

As well, all university staff have now participated in mandatory training on how to respond to gender-based and sexual violence, and two additional sexual violence support staff are being hired, as the committee found that Western had fewer staff resources than comparable universities its size to respond to incidents on campus.

Mr. Alleyne, who in addition to his role as a housing administrator is also interim associate vice-president of student experience, said in an interview that this has been a difficult year for Western and its students.

“We know we have more to do as a university,” he said. “It takes a multi-prong strategy where we’re looking at the environment, education, all aspects to help influence this type of behaviour. Nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of our students. We want to start to influence culture change, but it’s a societal issue we’re up against.”

While Western is taking steps to address the concerns raised by the events of orientation week, anxiety appears to persist among the student body. In March the student council passed a motion unanimously declaring a sexual and gender-based violence crisis on campus, saying the school year had been “framed by the hurt and anger” that arose in September.

University Student Council president Zamir Fakirani said he has received hundreds of messages from students who say they don’t feel safe on campus.

While Mr. Fakirani says he personally believes 30 girls were drugged and assaulted that Friday in Med-Syd, he thinks focusing on the numbers is a distraction. Many of the sophs the Globe spoke with say the same.

“I think that that specific number has been used to delegitimize the very real nature of the violence occurring on this campus,” said Mr. Fakirani. “What’s more important is to acknowledge that there is a very real and dangerous threat of violence that students face when they arrive on campus and there has not been a meaningful redress.”

In an opinion piece in the Western Gazette, first-year student Hannah Alper described how, for her and her classmates, September is now remembered “as an event, not just a month.”

“It’s April and I still don’t feel safe,” Ms. Alper wrote. “My sense of safety and security remains shattered, no matter how many resources are made available.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles