Police probing Western University sexual violence allegations work to separate fact from social media fiction

London, Ont., police are working with Western University officials and interviewing students after reports that up to 30 women were drugged and sexually assaulted at a first-year residence over the weekend.

Rumours 30 women were drugged haven't been substantiated, but London, Ont., police taking them 'seriously'

Western University is investigating multiple reports of sexual violence that are alleged to have happened at this student residence in London, Ont., over the weekend, at the end of orientation week. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

London, Ont., police are working with Western University officials and interviewing students after reports that up to 30 young women were drugged and sexually assaulted at a first-year residence over the weekend. 

"Let me state from the outset that these are serious and disturbing allegations and they've been taken seriously from the onset," said London police Chief Steve Williams at a virtual media briefing on Tuesday afternoon. 

But police have not received any reports about the alleged drugging or sexual assaults at Medway-Sydenham Hall over the weekend or in recent days, Williams added, despite thousands of comments on Instagram and the video-sharing app TikTok claiming incidents happened at the residence. 

"The allegations surfaced, at least for us, on social media. We all know how information misinformation swirls around social media, and we have to take that into account," Williams said. 

These are serious and disturbing allegations and they've been taken seriously from the onset- London police Chief Steve Williams

Social media can be a help and a hindrance during investigations, he added. 

"Many investigations involve some aspects of social media and our investigators know that. It's really a matter of knocking on doors and talking to people to get the facts, and that's exactly what we started doing yesterday [Monday] and we'll continue to ... see where the investigation takes us." 

Student arrested, released

Police also dispelled rumours that the death of first-year student Gabriel Neil, 18, is in any way connected to the sexual assault investigation. 

"These two incidents should in no way be connected, and these types of unfounded comments are hurtful to Mr Neil's family," Williams said. 

Neil died after an alleged assault close to campus, at Sarnia and Western Roads. A 21-year-old has been charged with manslaughter. 

Students have expressed fears and concerns over the difficult start to the new school year, as in-person classes returned following months of alternatives to learning because of the pandemic.

London police don't usually investigate allegations made on social media, but have opened an investigation into what may have happened at Medway-Sydenham Hall. 

"We are actively working in collaboration with Western University to identify and support any victims and to ensure a thorough investigation is conducted," Williams said. 

In the past week, London police received three complaints of sexual assault involving four female students. One male student was arrested in relation to one of those complaints, but has since been released from custody and has not been charged, police said. 

"There is no information at present linking the three prior allegations to events alleged to have occurred at Medway-Sydenham Hall, but these incidents remain under active investigation, which will include examining any possible linkage between various incidents." 

'We believe survivors'

Western University president Alan Shepard also participated in the media briefing, saying the allegations on social media are troubling. 

"Safety and security on campus are a priority for us, the highest priority. The recent events do not reflect Western values and they are not the Western experience that we would want for our students, and frankly, they're not the kind of experience that anyone would want for young people as they embark on this wonderful new chapter in their lives."

Gender-based violence is "pervasive" in society and on university campuses, and officials are working to combat it, he said.

"I think all universities have work to do with respect to sexual violence, and I don't think Western is alone in that respect," Shepard said. "We have increased our ability for students to get support when they need support. We've also tried to clarify the process by which people could report. Let me be very clear: We believe survivors and we trust them and we work to to support them."