Western students walkout, demand change amid sexual assault allegations
It was an afternoon filled with raw emotion for thousands of Western University students who stood-up, walked out, and demanded real change on how the post-secondary institution handles gender-based and sexual violence on campus.
An estimated 9,000 students walked out of class on Friday to attend the rally on University College Hill. Planned in just five-days, the student-led walkout featured multiple speakers, a list of ways survivors of assaults can access support, and a call to action for school administrators.
“What more research needs to be done to show there is a problem at Western that is not going away,” Teigan Elliott, a soph and member of the university’s red zone research team, tearfully asked the crowd. “Western, there are no excuses left for you. Your students are not safe here. You are putting them in danger and we should not have to be here protesting for our basic human rights.”
The walkout was planned in response to online allegations of students at the university’s Medway-Sydenham Hall residence being drugged and sexually assaulted during last weekend’s orientation week festivities. Posts to social media stated as many as 30 people were assaulted. London police are investigating the allegations, but so far no victims have come forward.
Elliott said she made the decision to become a soph, which is an older student who acts as a mentor to new students, this year after hearing stories of first-years being sexually assaulted and not receiving the help they needed.
“I became a soph because I wanted to prevent sexual violence. The fact that our school made it so hard for me to accomplish that task is heartbreaking,” said Elliott. “It is the responsibility of our school to do everything in its power to eliminate the campus culture that we have here that encourages violence. It is Western’s responsibility to support its students. Why were we thrown into classes this week when many of us could barely function? Why was same day counselling not available immediately ?”
Friday’s demonstration also included a moment of silence for Gabriel Neil. The 18-year-old first-year Western student died after being assaulted in the Western and Sarnia roads area last Saturday morning. Aliyan Ahmed, 21, and Haroun Raselma, 19, both of London, are charged with manslaughter in Neil’s death. Ahmed was released on bail on Thursday, while police continue to search for Raselma.
Neil’s death and the allegations of sexual assault on campus led the university to beef of security. And in an effort to prevent future violence and sexual assaults on campus Western announced on Thursday it is launching a task force on sexual violence and student safety.
“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,” President Alan Shepard said in a statement. “The measures announced today are the first step in a journey to deeply examine the prevailing culture on our campus and identify what more we can do to ensure the safety and security of every member of our community.”
The task force, which will be made up of students, staff, faculty and community partners, is part of a new broader student safety action plan from the university. It includes the following steps:
-Mandatory in-person training on sexual violence, consent and personal safety for all students who live on campus starting September 20
-Hiring up to 100 new upper-year undergraduates and graduate students as ‘safety ambassadors’ to support students in residence
-Hiring four new special constables, in addition to two new positions that were added this year.
-Additional on campus security patrols by special constable from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m
For many, Friday’s walkout was also a show of support for survivors of sexual violence, a way to tell them they do not have to suffer alone.
“Maybe you weren’t told that you don’t deserve what happened to you, that it is not your fault. Maybe you weren’t told to take a break from your classes, that the act of getting out of bed or showering is a sign of your healing. Your healing is unique to you, but you are traveling this path with countless others,” Elliott told the crowd.
Second-year student Misty Guinn said the rally gave a voice to all of those who have been wanting to do something to show their support to survivors but didn’t know how.
“Hearing the support and the applause in the audience was amazing. Listening to the words from the speakers gave me goosebumps and gives me hope this will be taken seriously,” said Guinn. “We are not sweeping this under the rug.”
Her hope is that the Western walkout will encourage students at other post-secondary institutions across the country to demand more protection and support from their schools.
“I am glad that there is some sort of change going on because we need to be protected, we need to feel safe. Being sexually assaulted on campus should not be my biggest fear,” said Guinn. “I am hoping there is some sort of domino effect because sexual violence is happening at so many more universities and colleges than just here. With us standing up I hope we can be an example for others.”
Students in the crowd held up signs reading “no more silence”, “protect our students, not your reputation”, and “denial is not a defence.”
“A big part of this is showing Western students that that behaviour and that culture doesn’t have a place here anymore. Their peers and everyone is against it. We are setting a new normal,” said fourth-year student Abbie Hormer.
She said as recently as Wednesday, she was cat-called by a group of men on campus while walking to class. She said the number of men who showed up to the rally proves the men who yelled at her are quickly falling into the minority.
“I noticed a lot of guys here and I think that is a big thing going forward – guys calling out their friends and saying ‘hey dude, that behaviour is not ok’. Seeing groups of guys here, holding signs that say ‘I stand with her’ is a big change. It shows an effort to try to change the culture,” said Hormer.
The provincial government has given post-secondary schools until March 31, 2022 to update their sexual violence policies to shield students from “irrelevant questions” including those about their sexual history during sexual violence investigations and ensure students can file complaints without fear that disciplinary action will be taken against them.