'I needed to do something': Western University students plan walkout amid sexual assault allegations

Students at Western University are planning to walk out of classes Friday as London, Ont. police investigate allegations of sexual assault at a first-year residence.

"I think I can speak for everyone on campus when we were pretty shocked, and no one was prepared for that kind of scale," says Hayden Van Neck, a third-year psychology student and co-organizer of the walkout.

Students are walking out over unconfirmed reports of up to 30 alleged drug-related sexual assaults, three confirmed reports of sexual violence and the death of first-year student Gabriel Neil.

'Disturbing,' 'concerning' and disgusting' are just some of the adjectives used by students to describe what has happened, and what is alleged to have happened, at the school this week.

"Emotions were high, and I felt like I needed to do something," Van Neck says.

She and about 20 other students have organized the walkout, which will see several sexual assault survivors speak to students who are expected to leave their classes at noon on Friday.

It will involve meeting at UC Hill, a walk around a campus route and then back to the hill for speeches.

"We're just hoping to bring everyone together, support our survivors and support survivors that were not involved in that incident, but prior incidents," says Van Neck.

The group planning the walkout is hoping to shift Western's focus from dealing with the aftermath to more of a prevention approach.

"Some of the things we are asking for is mandatory training...for all students, faculty and staff that walk this campus," says Danica Facca, a graduate student who has joined the organizing team.

"Additionally, we're looking to see what kind of mechanisms the university can put in place for Orientation Week. How can we restructure it to implement more safety measures? Or how can we re-envision the way that we can bring first years to campus together to still build community, but try and at least mitigate some of the spaces where this activity can happen on or off campus," she says. "When we're talking about gender-based sexual violence, especially as it happens on university campuses, the university itself is just one piece of a much larger sociocultural piece."

Students across the country are talking about what has happened, and what is alleged to have happened, in London.

A petition started on Change.org by a first-year McMaster University student had over 5,000 signatures by Wednesday afternoon. Joshua Bell is calling for the Ministry of Ontario Colleges and Universities to conduct a full investigation into Western University.

"It's not just the Western students that are concerned about what happened," says Bell, a social sciences student who has a number of friends attending Western.

"It's students right across the province that are concerned. They want actions to be taken to prevent another incident like this from happening at Western, but also at any other universities in Ontario."

Over the past few days, many students have told CTV News London they feel unsafe on campus.

"A lot of students of all genders are feeling very vulnerable right now,” says Emily Poirier, a walkout co-organizer.

"This is a really good opportunity for some community healing, and I think it's a really good way of taking back power. I think having this organization we're showing that there's so many people on campus who are not on board with this, and who are willing to stand against sexual violence and violence on campus. I think will be really powerful for students and faculty to start the healing process."

Western University officials and the London Police Service have confirmed that four women have come forward with formal complaints about being sexually assaulted on campus in recent days.

Police are also investigating allegations made on social media of mass drugging and sexual assaults at the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence on campus during orientation week.

The force has noted, however, that no one has come forward with a formal complaint in connection with the Medway-Syndenham Hall allegations, which have been made on social media.

In a statement to CTV News in response to the planned walkout on Friday, Western President Alan Shepard says, "We see this as a positive step forward in publicly affirming a collective commitment to stop gender-based sexual violence. This is an opportunity to work together on Western’s culture, and to ensure everyone feels safe on campus. We fully support members of the campus community who wish to participate in Friday’s event.”

According to the Student Voices on Sexual Violence, a survey of post-secondary students across the province conducted in 2018, one in three Western students surveyed indicated they were sexually assaulted in the previous 12 months. More than 8,000 Western students responded to the survey.

 

—With files from The Canadian Press