The Current

Amid Western University allegations, more education needed to combat culture of sexual violence: advocate

A former Western University student says concerns around on-campus sexual violence aren't new or limited to the school, but that administration must do more to rebuild trust with the student body.

University president says school is taking steps to address violence, support survivors

Thousands of students staged a walkout at Western University in support of survivors of sexual violence on Sept. 17. The demonstration comes after multiple reports and allegations that sexual violence took place on the London, Ont., university campus last weekend. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

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Reports and allegations of multiple sexual assaults on the London, Ont., campus of Western University shouldn't come as a surprise given existing statistics about sexual violence at post-secondary institutions, says one advocate.

"Anybody who's been a front-line worker, a student advocate, knows that this is not shocking," said Carina Gabriele, a former Western student union executive who has pushed the university to do more to combat sexual violence on its campus.

"This issue isn't unique to Western," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Arrests were made after four students reported to police this week that they were sexually assaulted on campus in separate incidents. 

Social media posts describing dozens of alleged sexual assaults linked to the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence were also circulating online this week. No reports have been filed in relation to those posts, but London Police have launched an investigation.

According to Statistics Canada, 71 per cent of post-secondary students have experienced or witnessed unwanted sexualized behaviour in a post-secondary setting in 2019.

Western University is investigating multiple reports of sexual violence that are alleged to have happened at the Medway Sydenham Hall student residence at the end of orientation week. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Rebekah Rodrigues, a journalist for the school's student newspaper Western Gazette, said the reports have "cast a shadow" on the school year, especially for new students. 

"A lot of people don't feel as safe as they usually have been on campus. A lot of people have been trying to stay off campus as much as they can," the fourth-year student told CBC Radio's Day 6.

She said she counts herself among those who feel unsafe there, especially at night.

In response to the reports and allegations, Western University announced it would launch a task force on sexual violence and student safety. It will also introduce mandatory training for students on consent and violence-prevention, and hire more security guards.

A student-led walkout took place on the university campus Friday morning.

They might not feel comfortable creating an official report, but it doesn't mean that it's not true.- Carina Gabriele, former Western student union executive

'Scourge on our society'

Alan Shepard, the university's president, told The Current that a culture of sexual violence exists at many post-secondary institutions, including Western.

"We want more respect for women and finally we want to address gender-based sexual violence. It's a scourge on our society," he said in an interview on Friday.

Shepard noted that the school began taking steps to address sexual violence on its campus in 2019.

Western University president Alan Shepard told The Current's Matt Galloway that the school is taking steps to support victims of sexual violence. (Colin Butler/CBC)

After months of consultations, a new policy on gender-based and sexual violence came into effect at Western in 2020 — a move that changed disclosure and reporting requirements, and provided victims with additional counselling supports, he said.

Despite changes, victims at Western University remain hesitant to report violence through official channels, and may prefer to share their experiences with trusted friends and even on social media, Gabriele said.

"They understand what it means to be putting that out there," she said. "They might not feel comfortable creating an official report, but it doesn't mean that it's not true."

The university's administration needs to rebuild trust with students, she said, noting that systems for reporting violence often lack transparency.

Shepard said victims are coming forward, and the school encourages more to do so in order to "break whatever cycles are out there."

LISTEN | Western Gazette journalist on sexual assault allegations, reports

Sex education needed from kindergarten: expert

Farrah Khan, manager of Consent Comes First at Ryerson University's Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education, said efforts to address "rape culture" on campuses must be taken farther.

But those tasked with addressing sexual violence on campuses are often overstretched and poorly supported, she said.

"Oftentimes, it's one person that's mandated to do the support and education for [a] whole campus community, and that, one, leads to a lot of burnout for that person, but also means that they can't give the support and resources that students need when they are themselves so stretched.

Many students say they now feel unsafe on campus, according to Rebekah Rodrigues, a journalist for the school's student newspaper. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Khan said education is key for first-year university students, but it also needs to be prioritized for students from kindergarten to Grade 12.

"When we talk about this, we have to talk about the culture of misogyny, white supremacy, oppression that creates the roots of which all these forms of violence [are] built upon," she told Galloway.

"It's a huge issue because we set up students to fail — we don't prepare them [for] when they come to university with education around relationships," she said.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Julie Crysler, Ben Jamieson, Rachel Levy-Mclaughlin and Pedro Sanchez.