Students at the University of Western Ontario plan to walk out of class Friday to protest what they describe as a harmful campus culture, following allegations that young women were drugged and sexually assaulted at a campus residence last week.
London police say they have assigned several officers to investigate the allegations, but that so far neither they nor the university have received any information, despite widespread discussion on social media. The origin of the allegations is unclear. Police are urging anyone who knows what happened to come forward.
At a press conference on Tuesday, London Police Chief Steve Williams said officers were knocking on doors at the Medway-Sydenham residence, where the assaults are alleged to have taken place, and will continue to pursue the case. Chief Williams said he was aware of social-media reports that there had been as many as 30 student victims. But he said none of them have spoken with police.
“Given the seriousness of these allegations we’ve opened an investigation and are actively working in collaboration with Western University to identify and support any victims and ensure a thorough investigation is conducted,” Chief Williams said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Twitter that he was “beyond disgusted to hear about the allegations of sexual assault” at Western. He added that students deserve to feel safe on campus.
Alan Shepard, Western’s president, told reporters on Tuesday that the university takes the allegations seriously and that campus security is a priority. Campus security patrols, he said, have been stepped up by 20 per cent over the past week. He added that a student foot patrol is available to escort people from one campus location to another, and that no guests are permitted in university residences.
He also said the university has changed its policies to make it easier for victims to report cases of sexual violence. Western, he said, would provide counselling and support should someone want to disclose an assault without going to police.
“We really leave it in the hands of women, or the men, who are making the disclosure to make that decision for themselves. We also acknowledge that sometimes these disclosures come months or even years later,” Mr. Shepard said.
Organizers of the campus protest planned for Friday are calling on students to walk out of class at noon and gather in front of University College. Organizer Hayden Van Neck, a third-year psychology student, said she was outraged by what she had read on social media.
“I feel there needs to be some kind of institutional change, because no one really seems satisfied with how these things are dealt with, and I think this is a turning point,” Ms. Van Neck said.
She said the university needs to prepare student leaders to deal with potentially dangerous situations, and to provide students with more resources on navigating their first weeks at university, when the risk of sexual assault is considered particularly acute.
Chiara Wallace, a first-year student living in residence, said she plans to attend the demonstration.
“I don’t feel protected,” Ms. Wallace said. “If this is going to help more people feel safe on campus, if this is going to change something, I’m absolutely motivated to go.”
The London Police Service said it had received three reports of sexual assault, involving a total of four victims, on the Western campus last week, although none of those were connected to Medway-Sydenham Hall. In one instance, a person was arrested and released without charge, although the investigation is continuing, police said.
Mr. Shepard said that the university had removed students from residence as part of its response to those four reported incidents.
Chief Williams said it can be difficult to pursue an investigation that begins with allegations on social media.
“We all know how misinformation swirls around social media,” Chief Williams said. “It’s really a matter of knocking on doors and talking to people to get the facts. That’s exactly what we started doing yesterday and will continue to do. We’ll go where the information takes us.”
In an unrelated incident around 2 a.m. on Saturday, first-year Western student Gabriel Neil was killed in an altercation near campus. A 21-year-old man has been charged with manslaughter.
“It is quite heartbreaking for all of us,” Mr. Shepard said. “We’re devastated by Gabe’s senseless death and our hearts are with his family and his friends and with those at Western who were coming to know him.”
Mr. Neil, 18, had only just arrived at university. He had planned to study kinesiology and had aspired to one day become a doctor. His family issued a statement in which they described him as a “gentle and kind soul who made friends wherever he went.”
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