Western University students plan walkout Friday after sex assault allegations

Students at Western University plan to walk out of classes on Friday to protest a "culture of misogyny" on campus and what they call a failure by the school to address it, an organizer said Wednesday. 

The event is being planned as police investigate allegations of sexual assault during the London, Ont., school's orientation week. 

Organizer Hayden Van Neck, a third-year psychology student, said heavy drinking, excessive partying and aggressive behaviour towards women are campus-wide issues that have been present during her entire time at the university.

"There is this culture of misogyny, and homophobia, that are the underlying issues on campus that allow events like this to happen," Van Neck said in an interview.

"There has just been a lot of violence in the last week, and I think we need some actual change to prevent this from happening in the future."

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

"The response has been overwhelming," she said of student reaction to the planned event. 

The group planning the walkout has several calls for action, which include asking the school to prepare and immediately implement "cohesive and mandatory gender-based and sexual violence education training modules."

The students also want the school to clarify the process for sexual violence reporting, which Van Neck has said is confusing. 

The group is additionally asking the provincial Ministry of Colleges and Universities to conduct an investigation into the school's gender-based violence policies, claiming they "fail to protect students."

Alan Shepard, president of Western, said in a statement that the school fully supports members of the campus community who wish to take part in Friday's walkout.

"We see this as a positive step forward in publicly affirming a collective commitment to stop gender-based sexual violence," he said. "This is an opportunity to work together on Western’s culture, and to ensure everyone feels safe on campus."

The school has said it takes the recent allegations seriously, and that it is offering a wide variety of supports to students.

Western and London police have said 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 on those online allegations. 

The allegations came as an 18-year-old Western student died after being assaulted near campus over the weekend. A 21-year-old man, who Western said was not a student, has been charged with manslaughter.

AnnaLise Trudell, manager of education, training and research at Anova, a gender-based violence shelter in London that works with Western students, said the culture at the school -- and all post-secondary schools -- needs to change.

"The majority of sexual assaults in this age bracket involve the use of alcohol," she said, adding that it's not just about getting a potential victim drunk to make them more vulnerable.

"We know from the research that alcohol use means that men are actually more likely to be aroused by deterrence and angered by rejection," she said. "So it shifts their behaviour in terms of being more predatory in nature."

There's also a tendency for young men to ignore other men who are being predatory towards women, she said.

"There's not a lot of calling folks out around that really aggressive perpetrator's behaviour," Trudell said. 

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2021.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press


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