All incoming students at University of Western Ontario will have to complete online training in gender-based and sexual violence before they arrive on campus under an initiative to address a toxic culture that prompted a student walkout last September.

An action committee struck to address the fallout from allegations of drugging and sexual assault in a university residence has recommended the training as an interim step to improve campus safety. The committee’s four interim recommendations were accepted by the university and will be implemented by the time new students arrive in the fall.

The Western campus was rocked by allegations of sexual violence that spread through social media last September. Police in London, Ont., launched an investigation, saying at the time they had seen reports on TikTok and Twitter that claimed as many as 30 young women had been drugged and sexually assaulted inside a Western residence. Investigators went door to door and spoke to hundreds of students in the days afterward, however they’ve said no one came forward to report being drugged or sexually assaulted.

Students walked out of class en masse a few days later in a demonstration that called for changes to what they described as a toxic campus culture. Western president Alan Shepard responded by committing to a number of initiatives, including the action committee, aimed at improving student safety.

“We really want to prepare students before they even arrive on campus so that they understand what Western’s values are, and how we want to see our community conduct itself on campus,” said Terry McQuaid, co-chair of the action committee on gender-based and sexual violence and a director for wellness in the Western student experience office.

“The recommendations are established in a way that will address the party culture and the [excessive consumption of] alcohol given that we are talking about setting out Western’s values and expectations early on, before students come in,” said Dr. McQuaid.

Before arriving on campus, incoming students will be required to complete an online course which will be sent out in the coming months, Dr. McQuaid said. It takes about 45 minutes to complete and includes material on consent and personal safety, as well as on how a bystander can intervene in situations that might pose a danger to others. Students will be taught to reconsider some of the prevalent myths and expectations around sexual behaviour.

The university will also send a message to the parents of incoming students to reinforce its expectations, Dr. McQuaid said. Once they arrive at Western all students staying in residence will be required to take in-person training that will delve more deeply into issues of sexual violence.

The other recommendations the committee offered include additional training for Sophs, the student leaders who run much of the orientation programming for incoming students, as well as the hiring of two additional employees with training in how to deal with gender-based and sexual violence.

Ziyana Kotadia, a vice-president of the Western student council, said the recommended changes will help shift the university’s campus culture.

“These recommendations really get at the importance of proactive education, of making sure that students are trained and informed about the resources and the support systems that are available to them, and ensuring that Western University is also appropriately staffed and resourced,” Ms. Kotadia said.

Applications to Western declined by 3.4 per cent among Ontario high-school students this year, one of only a handful of universities to see a decline in applications. An independent inquiry into the events that took place in residence last September is currently under way, led by lawyer and former MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers and Sonya Nigam, former director of the human rights office at the University of Ottawa.

Western’s acting president Sarah Prichard said the university would work with student leaders to implement the committee’s recommendations.

The Globe and Mail, February 7, 2022