Editor’s note: The Gazette and the London Free Press joined in the reporting of this story. This article contains detailed descriptions of sexual assault and the emotional trauma that followed.
A student who alleges she was sexually assaulted — her account corroborated by a witness who freed her — and other students who say they witnessed girls drugged on campus have provided harrowing accounts of a terrifying Orientation Week at Western University.
They blame the university for failing to protect female students from a "rape culture" and for creating a system in which student volunteers are suddenly thrown into a crisis without proper training and support.
“Sometimes I feel like he's still holding me down,” a student alleging sexual assault says. “How many more guys are like this that we don't know? And are living next door?”
Dealing with the majority of the chaos during Orientation Week were student volunteers called sophs. A soph is a volunteer at Western who deals directly with first-year students — mentoring them academically, orienting them in their new university setting and guiding them through the challenges of campus life.
“There were a lot of times where it was just us, student volunteers who are not very old and didn’t have proper training, dealing with super dangerous situations,” said Teigan Elliott, a King’s University College soph.
“So many sophs have so many stories from this night because this night was awful. It was atrocious,” said Kate Newell, a soph with the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, who says she saw signs of female students being drugged on Sept. 10.
Western has claimed they provide “extensive sexual and gender-based violence training” to all first-year students and sophs.
Many first-year students and sophs who spoke to The Free Press and the Western Gazette have unequivocally refuted this claim.
Only a few students have come forward publicly to describe the chaos and violence of OWeek.
One survivor was willing to share her story of sexual assault in an effort to get more survivors to come forward and share their stories on their own terms.
The survivor is a first-year student living on campus in residence. She asked that her name not be used because she fears retaliation from her attacker.
The survivor and her roommate left an OWeek event to go to the dorm room of two male students. The two women had been drinking that night.
Soon after arriving at the residence, the assault took place.
The survivor sat on one of the dorm beds and said she was stunned when the assailant suddenly forced himself on top of her, pushing his hand into her face.
“I couldn’t move, his hand was covering my face really hard,” said the survivor. “It felt like I was punched in the nose.”
The survivor’s roommate was with her in the dorm room, but said she couldn’t see what was happening to the survivor on the other side of the room, as the assailant’s friend was blocking her.
The survivor said her attacker pushed harder on her mouth every time she moved, then began to push her down onto the bed. She said she told him “no” repeatedly, but was scared of making him mad. His hand over her mouth muffled her pleas.
Once the survivor was pinned down, she said her attacker began restraining her legs. As she rolled around the bed trying to stop him, he tried to restrain her arms.
She said her attacker then pressed his arm into her chest, preventing her from breathing, and started touching her. That’s when she began to yell, “I don't want to.”
When the survivor’s roommate heard her friend from the other side of the room and saw the survivor was restrained, she intervened and freed the survivor.
As the survivor tried to leave, the assailant blocked the door, scolded her, then pushed her out of the room, she said.
The survivor did not report the incident to either police or the university.
“The majority of survivors choose not to report [their assaults] … to police or to other formal reporting processes like on campus,” said AnnaLise Trudell, manager of education, training and research at Anova, a London shelter and counselling agency.
“A court case can take up to two years. It can sort of take some of the control out of her hands, even though the police might do their very best as it relates to that. But at the end of the day, you’re entering into a system and a process that is much larger than just yourself.”
According to the Canadian Woman’s Foundation, only five per cent of sexual assaults were reported to police in 2014.
During this year's OWeek, several female students were drugged, witnesses say.
They describe the night of Sept. 10 at Medway-Sydenham Hall as a scene of chaos, with ambulances, fire trucks and students being taken to hospital on stretchers.
A first-year student living in Med-Syd, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she was in the residence that night.
Shortly before 11 p.m., someone pulled a false fire alarm in the residence, causing students to flood University Avenue as firetrucks and ambulances lined the street.
As the student made her way toward the parking lot between the Medway and Sydenham buildings, she saw a female student lying on the ground.
“Her stomach was over the curb and her arms were out and it looked like she was sleeping,” she said. “A couple of her girlfriends were surrounding her and then an ambulance came.”
The student was told later the girl she'd seen had been drugged. And this wasn’t an isolated incident, according to the student.
“One of the girls on my floor admitted [to me] that she had been ‘roofied’” — slipped a date-rape drug — she said.
According to sources close to the matter who aren't authorized to speak publicly, multiple students across campus were roofied. Exactly how many has not been verified.
“Each day, I feel more and more unsafe [in Med-Syd],” the student said. “Each day, I hear new stories”.
Kate Newell, the Faculty of Information and Media Studies soph, was deployed to Med-Syd at 11 p.m. to help restore order outside the residence.
Before Newell got to Med-Syd, she ran into a student she knew, who was visibly distraught. The student told Newell she saw girls falling on the ground and described an atmosphere of panic within the residence.
“[The student] was like, ‘Kids are just passing out, they're all OD’ing’ ” Newell said.
Later that night, Newell helped another first-year student outside another residence. She said the student appeared to have lost control of their body.
“There were definitely some things that didn't add up, like her inability to stand up and walk straight,” said Newell. “She was talking, but when [the Student Emergency Response Team] would stand [with her], she would crumble. She couldn't really walk. She was freezing.
“There were just certain things I know with regards to being drunk that were different that I just hadn’t seen before."
Newell said she and many other sophs have been deeply affected by their experiences on the night of Sept. 10. “So many sophs have so many stories from this night because this night was awful. It was atrocious.”
Newell was physically assaulted by a male first-year student outside of Med-Syd that night, she said.
Ali Ibrahim-Hirji, a member of the University Students’ Council’s orientation staff, revealed details of the mental health and physical safety concerns among student leaders during in a viral Instagram post that drew more than 15,000 likes.
“What you don’t see is our team responding to our [sixth] gender-based violence situation of the night, and the 11th, and the 14th … EVEN when that means putting themselves in danger because no one else is there to help,” Hirji wrote.
Several sophs complain inadequate sexual violence training for both themselves and first-year students left them feeling overwhelmed and at a disadvantage when their roles turned them into first responders to sexual assaults in residence, and counsellors the night after.
Sophs say they receive inadequate training on how to report an incident or intervene in one.
“I've never been taught specifically what methods to use, and I've done this for two years,” Newell said. "The training itself is not where I gain my knowledge for sophing.”
Much of her soph training aimed to protect Western’s reputation, rather than help students, she said.
“In case there are any instances of kids posting on stories, or kids posting to social media, it’s what you should do as a soph to minimize … the damage to the school. Instead of talking to sophs and saying, ‘There's going to be these hard situations … here’s how to talk to boys about consent.’ ”
“There are training modules online you must complete in order to soph. However, there is no way to ensure that people are actually watching the videos,” said Elliott, the King’s soph. “It’s pretty easy to skip them and just get the answers right.”
While sophs were instructed to contact a member of the Student Emergency Response Team or campus police in the event of any gender-based violence incidents, a shortage of trained SERT staff left sophs — undertrained and uninformed — to be first responders to students, Elliott said.
Making matters worse this fall, students say, was the lack of sophs living in residences. Western's COVID protocols kept them out of dorms, where they normally build relationships with first-year students.
Resources for first-year students were also inadequate, many sophs say.
First-years are typically given a presentation on consent during their first week at Western. The Can I Kiss You training was held virtually this year through a video live-stream.
According to Elliott, OWeek events about consent and assault were optional for first-year students, and few students attended.
No residence staff from Western ensured the video was watched by students, who were instructed to watch it on their own time as well, said one student in Saugeen-Maitland Hall.
Emily Ding, another first-year student, said she did not attend any training regarding sexual and gender-based violence, because she felt it was insufficient.
“I didn’t go to them, because there were small descriptions about these events on the OWeek app, but there weren't large amounts of details on what it was, so I didn’t end up going to any.”
Sophs were put in the position of walking students home to residences where alleged assaults were occurring, said Lauryn Bikos, a third-year English and political science student and soph at Brescia University College.
“Walk-homes are where you’re supposed to walk [frosh] home to safety. Just the knowledge coming out after, that in a weird way you actually brought them to danger, that’s just crazy,” said Bikos. “We couldn't do anything at that moment because we did what we were trained to do; but you feel so helpless and you feel guilty for putting them there. But really, what else are we supposed to do?”
In a statement to the Gazette, Western claimed that, “sophs and residence staff are trained on Western’s gender-based and sexual violence policy and referral and support procedures prior to students arriving.”
But in an open letter to the university on Instagram, the Arts and Humanities Students’ Council called Western’s policies “insufficient” in preventing and addressing sexual assault, rape and violence.
Western’s statement was a “misrepresentation of truth and a failure on the university’s part to hold itself accountable for the unacceptably insufficient measures taken to prevent sexual assault on campus," it said.
“One optional consent workshop during Orientation Week is far from enough for the university to claim that they have co-ordinated extensive training,” the statement said.
“We want to see more thorough proactive and preventative measures, mandatory and thorough training, more accessible support systems for survivors and active initiatives to deconstruct the rape culture that is undeniably present at Western University.”
Lack of adequate training for sophs harmed students, said Maddie Osborne, vice-president of programming for Western’s University Students’ Council.
“As much as we'd like to say that sophs shouldn't be dealing with these situations — and I agree that they are out of the scope of what a soph should have to deal with — … sometimes sophs are put into these situations where students need support until we can get a professional in the room.” she said.
"And I think we need to make sure that sophs are adequately trained and have the tools that they need to support students and maintain their own wellness during those events and afterwards. They’re young. These are students, they're not professionals. And these can be really traumatic events. So if we're not providing adequate training — if student experience isn't providing that adequate training — it can do a lot of harm to students, for sure.”
Western University has some of highest rates of sexual assault and sexual harrasment in the province, according to a 2019 report from the Council of Ontario Universities — with almost a third of students identifying themselves as sexual assault survivors.
But sexual assault is a cultural problem that's not isolated to Western, said Anova’s Trudell.
“I think it’s important to not just quickly point to one specific institution or issue and say, ‘That’s where the issue is, that will solve everything.’ Because frankly, if that was that simple, we would have solved it,” she said.
“It is a larger cultural phenomenon it is part of what we term rape culture … Western bears some of that, but so does the broader culture, so does our community.”
The atmosphere of drinking, partying and socializing prevalent during OWeek, and on Western’s campus throughout the year, unfortunately leads to many incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, she said.
“In some ways, that’s implying that alcohol’s to blame and socializing is to blame [but] those two things don’t cause violence," Trudell said. "Perpetrators cause violence.”
“The reality is that OWeek produces survivors. Now we’re having a whole conversation about not just this possible incident at Medway-Sydenham, but the unfortunate pattern of how we have way too many survivors coming out of both OWeek and campus life generally.”
That has been happening for years, said Eternity Martis, a Western alum and author of They Said This Would be Fun, a memoir chronicling her time at Western and dealing with issues of sexual violence.
“When I was a student, there were incidents on campus of sexual assault and the school never said anything. It doesn't really sound like much has changed the last couple of years,” said Martis, who graduated in 2015.
“There are so many women that I've spoken to, who went to Western in the '60s, in the '70s and '80s, who I'm talking to currently, and there were the same issues around sexual assault at Western and a lack of response from the university,” said Martis.
Martis said she acknowledges Western has a great academic reputation, but she still fears her relatives and others might choose Western without understanding the environment on campus.
“It's built into the culture, I would never feel safe sending my own child there, my own daughter there. I would never recommend that someone else's daughter go there,” she said.
“I think everybody should be worried about sending their daughters to Western.”
The Free Press requested a response from Western to a dozen questions based on complaints from students outlined in this story, including about soph training.
The university did not respond, but on Thursday afternoon announced it was launching a new student safety action plan that will include mandatory in-person sexual violence training for all students in residence starting Monday, with the goal of making it mandatory for all students.
Residence sophs will be allowed back into residences, the university announced.
The university also announced the hiring of 100 “safety ambassadors” for students in residence and 15 new security guards, the reactivation of foot patrols, and upgrading lighting and security access to buildings.
The university also said it was creating a task force on sexual violence and student safety “to better understand and eradicate sexual violence and create a campus culture where these unacceptable actions are prevented.”
“We have a lot of work to do as a community,” president Alan Shepard said in a release. “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.”
With additional reporting by Hope Mahood, Liam Afonso, Ashley Goveas, Sheetal Vemannagari, Sarah Wallace, Rebekah Rodrigues and Kirat Walia of the Western Gazette.
Update (Sept. 17, 2021, 1:04 a.m.): This article has been updated to further protect the identity of one of the survivors.