For Western University student Katrina Desjardins, Friday of frosh week was shaping up to be the best night so far.
The leader of a student orientation team was assigned to a drag show event on UC Hill, nestled in the centre of the campus in London, Ont. It was a good vibe; people were having fun. As a soph, Desjardins’ role was to support first-year students by showing them around and leading them in activities.
But at 11 p.m. the walkie talkie crackled loudly with chatter and the mood shifted: A fire alarm had been pulled at Medway-Sydenham Hall and sophs were being called to help control the crowd.
Outside the residence, a boisterous throng of about 150 students gathered. A few students were lying on the ground, getting medical attention, surrounded by sophs.
Desjardins urged everyone to put on masks and social distance, but the response was combative. They cursed and yelled: “Don’t tell me what the f— to do;” “Get out of my face.” One student shoved a soph to the ground.
“In all my years as an orientation leader I had never seen hostility quite like that,” says the fourth-year student. “It felt chaotic.”
Suddenly, Desjardins was called away to Delaware Hall residence. There, a woman on the curb, was inconsolable. “Sophs were basically holding her up. She couldn’t support her body weight,” says Desjardins.
Over the next few hours, as ambulance and fire truck sirens blared across campus, Desjardins saw more students collapse. In total, she saw seven students drop to the ground that night.
“Being a soph for three years, I’ve seen plenty of people who are drunk,” she says. “This was a lot more than that.”
It’s still unclear what happened on the night of Sept. 10. But a flurry of social media postings alleging 30 students were drugged and sexually assaulted in residence prompted an investigation by London police. Hours later, a first-year student was violently assaulted near campus and later died.
Police are also investigating three reports of sexual assaults on campus earlier in the week.
For the university community, it was an unusually disturbing start to the academic year.
Interviews with students, staff, parents and others reveal a crisis on campus fuelled by the university’s reputation as a party school, questionable decisions by administration prior to orientation week, a record-number of first-year students who spent much of the pandemic cooped up at home, and a campus culture that critics say normalizes sexual assault and leaves survivors feeling unsupported.
The university has vowed to combat sexual violence on campus and has introduced measures to boost safety and security. A test of those measures could come Saturday when the university hosts its annual Homecoming celebration, a boozy affair that in the past has attracted thousands of revellers.
“Let me be very clear: Sexual violence will never be tolerated on our campus,” university president Alan Shepard said in a statement last week.
“This has been a tremendously difficult time for our students and the entire Western community. We clearly have a culture problem that we need to address. We let our students and their families down.”
Western’s reputation as a party school is well known. Massive block parties on Broughdale Avenue — London’s notorious party strip located outside the campus’s main gates — routinely attract police, generate headlines and raise the ire of residents who complain of theft, vandalism and property damage.
Even this year, the antics started prior to orientation week, which ran from Sept. 6 to 12, with large crowds of teens gathered on Broughdale, some clambering up poles, jumping off cars and crowd-surfing. It was so raucous the presidents of the university and student union issued a joint statement warning that if such behaviour didn’t stop they’d risk losing in-person learning, extracurricular activities and athletics.
This year, Western admitted a record-number of first-year students and welcomed many second-year students on campus for the first time, after classes were moved online last year due to COVID-19 restrictions. This created a double-cohort of students experiencing the novelty of campus life, leading to larger crowds.
“Western has strong social traditions, and for some of our students this translates into a party culture, particularly at the start of the academic year,” said Shepard in a statement to the Star. “But our students are here to learn, first and foremost. We want to help them focus on the personal growth and transformation that happens when you seek a university education. … We need to help students find a better balance.”
Partying isn’t unique to Western. But alumni and students at Western say the problems on its campus have endured for years.
Author Eternity Martis, who did undergraduate studies at Western from 2010 to 2014, wrote a memoir titled “They Said this Would be Fun,’’ about her time as a young, racialized student there. It details her experiences with racism, misogyny and surviving a sexual assault at Medway-Sydenham Hall.
Since her book came out, numerous women have reached out to her, detailing their own experiences of sexual assault at Western, some dating back to the 1960s. As to why, Martis says it’s in part due to the university’s history of remaining silent on these issues.
“That silence really harms and retraumatizes students,” she says. “By not acknowledging it, they make it worse and they enable these students who feel emboldened to go out and sexually assault and drug and harass other students.”
Recent PhD graduate Natalie Trevino says that in her first year as a teaching assistant two female students visited her office and confided that a man in their residence had sexually assaulted them. They had mustered the courage to tell residence staff, hoping the male student would be expelled. He was moved to another floor in the same building.
“They felt really betrayed and uncomfortable because they also had to see this guy in class and around campus,” recalls Trevino.
During her five years as a teaching assistant in sociology to undergraduates, she says at least one person per semester would reveal themselves to be a survivor of sexual assault.
She told several faculty members about this, but nothing was done to address it. So Trevino took it upon herself to do something by setting aside lessons for what she dubbed Rape Week, where she and students tackled the weighty topic. Sometimes the talks got personal, with students disclosing they had been sexually assaulted — a revelation that was always met with a handful of pamphlets on where students could seek medical attention and off-campus counselling.
She’d tell students about their options, such as reporting to the university and police. But, she says, “they’re hesitant about every step of the process… because they (feel) no justice is going to come from it.”
Trevino understands. She says she was date raped off-campus a few years ago and turned to her university counsellor for help.
“She asked me, beyond flippantly, ‘Were you drinking? Did you want attention?’ In my head, I was like, ‘Wow, that was inappropriate … My getting raped is not my fault, that’s the fault of the rapist.’”
Trevino, who was in her mid-30s, was “shocked” by the response and wondered how devastating it would be for an 18-year-old to hear that.
Western won’t comment on Trevino’s statements. It did point out that in 2016, it created a dedicated gender-based violence and survivor support case manager role. And in the past several years, has worked more closely with community partners, including St. Joseph’s Health Care Regional Sexual Assault Program and Anova.
While Western swiftly condemned the reports of sexual assault at this year’s orientation week, it is not the first time the university has acknowledged issues of sexual violence on campus.
In a 2018 survey on campus sexual violence ordered by what was then the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, 71.6 per cent of respondents from Western said they’ve experienced one or more incidents of sexual harassment within the academic year — the highest of any other Ontario university.
“We are disappointed but not surprised, by the findings,” Western said in a statement about the survey results.
In response, Western put together a review committee of its sexual violence policy that September, and conducted a campus-wide survey to get feedback from students on the changes they wanted to see. It also struck a task force to develop a framework the university can consult on issues related to education and awareness of sexual violence.
By November 2019, the sexual violence policy at Western was revised to make it easier for survivors to report assaults. The university called the new policy “survivor-centric and easier to use.”
Western now says it will create a new task force that will “feature students prominently” in response to the incidents that occurred during orientation week. It also hired an external investigator to look into the events during and leading up to Sept. 10.
Third-year student Lauryn Bikos, who was a soph during frosh week, says she worries what she saw unfold on the Friday night is what happens when a school doesn’t take sexual assault seriously.
“I think the culture is really just maybe showing its true colours, but it’s definitely getting worse,” says Bikos. “People are entirely in the right to say they don’t feel safe on campus.”
Last week a walkout on campus attracted more than 10,000 students, many waving signs saying, “End Rape Culture” and “Protect Us. Not Your Reputation.”
Western president Shepard says the university is listening.
“Western, like all universities, is also a microcosm of the world all around us. And the world continues to struggle with issues of sexual consent, misogyny, and gender-based violence,” he told the Star. “The Western community is not immune and we’re facing this head on. Change takes time, but we are committed to making it.”
As the university prepared to welcome students to campus — some for the first time since the start of the pandemic — orientation leaders who found themselves enmeshed in the chaos of Sept. 10 say they should have received better training.
“A lot of sophs felt unprepared,” says Desjardins.
Training consisted of videos, and they were quizzed on material. But Desjardins says there was “nothing to verify that you’ve gone through and listened to what was actually said.”
She believes the anti-sexual violence training was insufficient. While it was delivered virtually this year because of COVID-19, she suggests a complete overhaul. Even in previous years with in-person training, she says orientation leaders were only shown how to fill out a disclosure form, but not how to step-in and act if they witnessed an assault.
“We don’t know how to recognize the signs that someone may have been drugged … And we don’t really know how to report if we think that something on a larger scale might have happened,” Desjardins says.
Similarly, Bikos wasn’t prepared for such a tumultuous night, with orientation leaders helping paramedics and the Student Emergency Response Team and wasn’t ready for “the severity of someone telling us (they had been sexually assaulted) and disclosing that.”
Chris Alleyne, associate vice-president of Housing & Ancillary Services, says because of the pandemic, the university delivered mandatory training to sophs both online and in-person.
The online training included content around equity, diversity and inclusion, gender-based violence, harm reduction and supporting students in distress. And before orientation week, they came together in small groups to role-play scenarios that could arise during frosh week, including someone disclosing sexual violence.
There are two types of sophs: faculty and residence. Because of the university’s COVID-19 protocols, faculty sophs were barred from accessing residences. So on Sept. 10, as rumours circulated, faculty sophs couldn’t get inside to check on students.
While the chaos was unfolding, in an unrelated event, Gabriel Neil, 18, was violently assaulted during the wee hours of Saturday near campus and died later in hospital. One man has been charged with manslaughter and a Canada-wide arrest warrant has been issued for another.
Desjardins, who was a faculty soph, feels “an overwhelming sense of guilt” that she wasn’t able to ensure students were safe. Earlier this week, the university re-established access to residence buildings for faculty sophs.
Maddie Osborne of the University Students’ Council says “while sophs are absolutely here to support their students, they are still students themselves and we need to recognize the limits of their roles.”
“In situations of (sexual and gender-based violence) there must be trusted and professional support readily available to support students, too.”
Another change this year was the removal of residence sophs — they now live off-campus — to accommodate a record number of 6,350 first-year students, which is 25 per cent higher than a decade ago. Residences are now at 94 per cent capacity with 5,300 students, compared to 70 per cent capacity last year.
“It was a bad idea to remove sophs from residence,” says Desjardins.
Having a fellow student, not employed by the university, who’s sober throughout frosh week to keep an eye on things is extremely important, she adds.
In residence, students can seek support from a don, typically a third- or fourth-year student. Dons live in residence and are trained on university policies, supports and de-escalating situations. On average, there’s one don for every 30 students. In addition to its 164 residence dons, the university has 28 professional staff — up from 18 in 2019 — who supervise dons and provide an extra layer of support.
Alleyne says on the night of Sept. 10, residence staff were busy helping students in medical distress, mostly for over-intoxication. The university has received little information from students about the alleged drugging and he urges those with information to call police.
Another COVID-related change was livestreamed consent training for first years, an orientation week event called ‘Can I Kiss You?’. It’s unclear how many students watched it, but the Star spoke with several who did not. By comparison, in-person outdoor events like concerts and performances were attended by thousands.
First-year student Emily Ding, for instance, didn’t watch the consent video, but like many others attended social outings. And the bigger they were, the better.
“Events at UC Hill at nighttime, where the attendance was like 1,000 people, (I thought) ‘Oh, I definitely want to go to that. Everyone’s going to that.’”
But the way frosh week ended left many in her residence shaken.
“(The alleged assaults are) definitely a topic that comes up pretty often,” Ding says. “It’s definitely something that spikes anxiety for some.”
In the lead up to this academic year, experts warned a double-cohort of students would descend on campus for the first time after 18 months of mostly virtual learning. They urged universities to prepare for possible chaos flowing from even more students engaged in excessive drinking and partying.
After all, many first years had missed out on important social aspects of their high school experience, such as in-person extracurriculars, parties, proms and graduations. And many in second year missed out on the traditional first-year experience on campus last year.
At Western, this year’s orientation saw wilder parties and unruly orientation events, says orientation leader Bikos.
“There’s a lot more of an undercurrent, I think you could say, of just pent-up aggression and energy,” she says. “I think everyone is feeling a little antsy, right? You were just home mostly for the last almost two years … It was (an) overload, almost, of excitement.”
The influx of first-timers — some eager to attend big events and parties — is concerning for experts, as research shows high levels of substance use and binge drinking among university students is associated with minor harms like vomiting and feeling sick, as well as serious and dangerous harms like an increase in violent incidents and hospitalizations.
“Students haven’t changed in fundamental ways, but this year with the pandemic and coming back to campus, the conditions are there for more students to experience harm, ” says Bryce Barker with the Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.
Research shows about 75 per cent of students report having been drunk in the last month, he says, adding, higher-risk drinking patterns tend to happen around events such as frosh week or Halloween.
For some, drinking is key to the social scene and making friends, Barker says, and it may be their first experience with alcohol.
Barker works with 41 universities across Canada — Western is not among them — to promote safe drinking and substance use. He says schools must proactively reduce harms stemming from events like orientation week by speaking to students before events begin.
Alcohol abuse is only one factor. Another issue alongside it is the limited awareness about consent and rape culture on campus, especially if universities are not proactive by talking about it with students before or during orientation.
While all universities see some wild behaviour during orientation week, Alleyne, who has worked in Western’s housing department since 2003, says things were different this year. People were less civil, and while some teens were keen to party, others were nervous being in groups of 20 because of COVID.
Western did discuss how to prepare for this year’s crop of new students, he says. They prioritized health and safety measures in residences, including a mandatory residence vaccination policy announced in May, lower capacity limits, physically distanced seating in dining halls, increased security during frosh week and a no-external guest policy.
Last week, the university announced a safety action plan which includes sweeping measures to beef up security, such as the hiring of new special constables and safety ambassadors, plus enhanced security patrols. And just this week, mandatory consent training began for all in residence.
Still, some are demanding more. A group of concerned parents with children at Western wrote to the administration saying “trust is broken” and are calling for “wholesale institutional change.”
“You have an opportunity to leapfrog other institutions and be the standard-bearer in Canada for a safe university environment,” according to the signed letter obtained by the Star. “Institutional strategy, system, structure, culture, and skills change are required from the top and at all levels to create a respectful, inclusive environment.”
Toronto mother Krystyna Henke, whose daughter is in her final year at Western, hopes “the powers that be are paying attention.”
“I have a daughter and I’m so concerned for her safety,” she told the Star. “Many of us (parents) feel so helpless because we’re not there.”
Martis, an alumna of Western, isn’t feeling too confident in the university’s ability to enact meaningful change. Any shift on campus, she adds, will be because of students, faculty and alumni who will hold the school accountable.
“It’s not fair that students and faculty have to do this work,” Martis says. “It should be the work of the university, but I think that’s where we will see real change.”
In the lead-up to Homecoming on Saturday, Western’s residence dons have gone door to door talking to students about personal safety, and 100 security guards have been added to patrol campus.
The city is bracing for a wild weekend. This week, local health officials broadened limits on social gatherings that cap indoor get-togethers at 25 and limit outdoor gatherings to 100, making them applicable to street parties, private homes and student residences. Fines run up to $5,000.
On Thursday, London Mayor Ed Holder appealed to students directly to avoid Broughdale Avenue, saying it’s not worth the risk: “I am terribly concerned another student will get hurt, or worse.”
His comments were echoed by Shepard, who urged students “to avoid these highly dangerous events where the potential for injury and violence is real.”
“Students are demanding more safety and security on our campus and calling for big changes in our culture,” he said in a statement. “This will take a collective effort if we are to succeed in this important turning point for our community.”