Western adding campus culture adviser, training for new students to prevent gender-based violence

Western University in London, Ont., says it is making new commitments to address and prevent gender-based and sexual violence, based on an independent review.

London, Ont., school to re-evaluate orientation week activities that prompted walkout last year

Students walk to a Western University protest in support of survivors of sexual violence on Sept. 17 in London, Ont. The university now says it's introducing new measures to combat and prevent gender-based and sexual violence. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Western University is introducing new measures to combat and prevent gender-based and sexual violence (GBSV) as part of an effort to address concerns around campus culture and safety. 

The measures include appointing a special adviser to address campus culture, and implementing mandatory GBSV prevention and awareness training for all new students that must be completed before they arrive for school in September.

The university will also immediately fully re-evaluate its orientation (O-week) activities that last September prompted thousands of students to walk out after allegations of sexual assault and drugging came to light.

"We have listened to our campus community and our expert partners," said university president Alan Shepard.

"Together with them, we want to be leaders in the work to prevent gender-based violence from happening on university campuses and throughout society." 

The actions follow recommendations from an independent review commissioned by Shepard that looked at allegations of sexual violence from September that were posted to social media, along with a report from the university's internal action committee on GBSV, which was formed in response to the allegations and walkout.

These third-year Western University students were among those at the protest against gender-based sexual violence in September. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

These measures are building blocks for the changes to campus culture that incoming university student council (USC) president Ethan Gardner wants to see when he starts his term in the fall.

"I'm pleased to see Western is taking steps to address these instructional changes," he said. "They touched on a lot of really important topics and the main point is implementation, so what we're looking forward to seeing is how they'll implement these changes." 

Committees formed to foster accountability

The re-evaluation of O-week activities seeks to foster accountability, the university said. All O-week student leaders will have to take part in a two-week intensive training program, which emphasizes safety and discourages overconsumption of alcohol and other recreational drugs.

Ethan Gardner, the incoming university student council president, says the new Western measures are a 'great start' in efforts to prevent and fight violence. (Submitted by Western USC)

"That's something USC has been pushing for a while now, with the increased and updated training, and the issues on these training modules is a great start to educating the student body," said Gardner. 

Shepard acknowledged how difficult the past school year has been for the Western community, including the death of first-year student Gabriel Neil, who was killed after an assault near the campus in September. 

"The impact of last September has rightly led us to look inward as an institution. We are re-examining our culture, our values, our policies and our approach to orienting students to campus life," Shepard said.

"And we are redoubling our efforts as a community to use this moment to generate real and lasting change."

A new GBSV committee will be formed that consists of student, staff and faculty representatives with as-needed input from various community partners. It will be centred on assault survivors, and focus on training initiatives aimed at prevention, safety and culture change.

Gardner said he's happy to see Western adopt some of the many recommendations USC made, which included consent modules, community resources for students and extra staff for safety. 

The university said it will support independent student organizations such as fraternities and sororities in their effort to address the issue of GBSV.

"It's important that students lead these conversations and I hope that I can help them do that," said Gardner.

Western has faced criticism over frat culture on its campus and the role it plays in sexual violence, but the university said it has no affiliation with any of these groups. Last week, Ontario PC candidate Stephen Lecce apologized for taking part in a fraternity-organized "slave-auction" during his time at Western. 

Shepard said he's grateful to London's community members who have spoken up to offer their insight and expertise, and guided Western through this process of change.

"Changing culture will take time, persistence and the active engagement of all campus members to achieve. Together, we remain committed to actively working to end gender-based and sexual violence on campus and in our community."