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Western University to mandate sexual violence training following allegations


By Nicole Thompson

LONDON, Ont. — An Ontario university investigating sexual misconduct allegations will require student residents to take training sessions on sexual violence and consent as it works to address what it describes as a problematic campus culture.

Western University introduced the measure Thursday as part of an “action plan” in response to concerns around student safety after several allegations of sexual assault surfaced during the school’s orientation 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,” president Alan Shepard said in a written statement.

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The London, Ont., school plans to eventually make the training mandatory for all students, but will start with those living on campus, with the first sessions happening Monday.

The action plan will also see the university hire 100 new “safety ambassadors” — a mix of upper-year undergraduates and graduate students who will work overnight in residences.

The school also plans to create a task force that will take “a comprehensive look” at student safety.

“We have a lot of work to do as a community,” Shepard said. “I’ve spoken with students who are hurting, and we are here to listen, and to collaborate with them to find a better way forward.”

The announcement came a day before students planned to walk out of classes in protest of what they described as a “culture of misogyny” on campus.

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 said no one has come forward with a formal complaint on those allegations.

Sarah Foster, who’s in her third year at Western, said the mood at the school has changed recently.

“It’s been really upsetting,” she said. “It’s supposed to feel like a safe space here.”

Foster said campus felt like a safe haven when she was in first year, but that is no longer the case.

“I’ve walked across campus super late at night and not felt worried about it, even when I shouldn’t have,” she said. “But that’s obviously super not safe to do anymore.”

Katie Garth, a fellow third-year, said she also feels less safe, but was glad the issues of campus culture and student safety were being discussed.

“Unfortunately this does happen, and it happens more often than you hear about,” she said. “So I’m glad that it’s come to light here. Hopefully it becomes a learning experience.”

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

The university’s latest steps came as the provincial government announced post-secondary institutions would have to update their sexual violence policies to better support students who come forward with complaints.

The policies must ensure students who report sexual violence will not be disciplined for breaking a school’s rules related to drug and alcohol use at the time of an alleged assault.

They also need to ensure students will not be asked “irrelevant questions” by school staff or investigators, such as inquiries related to their past sexual history or sexual expression.

“Our government is working with postsecondary institutions to update their sexual violence and harassment policies to better support students who have already gone through a difficult experience and may be feeling scared and vulnerable,” said Jill Dunlop, minister of colleges and universities.

The new requirements were first proposed in January, with public consultations wrapping in mid-March.

The province said Thursday that colleges and universities will need to review their sexual violence policies and amend them by March 31, 2022.

Eunice Oladejo, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and vice-president of external affairs at the University Students’ Council at Western, said she was encouraged to see the province implement recommendations from the student alliance.

“This past week has been a devastating reminder of the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence on our campuses and the work that still needs to be done to protect and support students across the province,” Oladejo said in a statement.

But the Opposition NDP questioned the effectiveness of the government’s changes.

“Tinkering with regulatory language does nothing to ensure those holding student disclosures understand the impact of their questions or can assess why some questions are irrelevant,” NDP legislators said in a statement.

“The government is asking institutions to create their own individual policies without giving them any resources or real guidance.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2021.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2021.