LONDON, Ont. — Hoisting signs and chanting slogans denouncing sexual violence, hundreds of students walked out of classes at Western University on Friday to demand a change in what they described as a “toxic” campus culture.
The large gathering — which packed a green space on the London, Ont., school’s campus — came days after a series of sexual assault allegations surfaced during the university’s orientation week, rattling students and prompting the administration to announce new safety measures.
“Stop this violence, no more silence,” the crowd chanted shortly after students left their desks at noon.
Lindsey Ip, a third-year student, said she thought the university wasn’t taking the recent allegations seriously. “It’s been terrifying,” she said as she held up a sign at Friday’s protest.
Katie Flannery, another student, said she had been harassed by young men at the university as recently as a few days ago when she was walking home from class at night. “A car full of guys pulled up, shouted at me and honking the horn, and it was ridiculous,” she said. “It’s so disheartening to deal with that especially after the terrible events that took place.”
Morgan McMillan, who is in her first year at Western after transferring from another school, said she’s on edge at night on campus. “It’s been kind of scary. I had a night class last night, done at 9 p.m., and walking home from that class I was on the phone with a friend in case something happens.”
Western University and London police have said four women have come forward with formal complaints about being sexually assaulted on campus recently.
Police are also investigating allegations made on social media of mass drugging and sexual assaults at the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence on campus during orientation week. The force has said no one has come forward with a formal complaint on those online allegations.
Some students at Friday’s gathering wrote “love letters to survivors” that were hung on a clothesline. “Hi bestie, you are doing so great,” one note said. “Stay Strong. I believe in you, we all do.”
Later, students who described themselves as survivors of sexual violence shared their experiences with the crowd.
Teigan Elliott, a third-year student, read a poem she wrote last year titled Rape Victim.
“If I am drunk and I smile at a man and he assaults me, suddenly no one is too sure who should be responsible,” she read. “It’s alcohol, they cried, it’s party culture. It’s boys who are taught not to take no for answer. It’s men who discovered the system is on their side. It takes the work of a community to uphold rape culture.”
Elliott told the crowd she was a victim of rape.
“I’m a survivor even when I don’t feel that I have survived,” she said. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault, and I am angry.”
Western University president Alan Shepard said the student walkout marked a difficult but important day to honour survivors, hear their stories and hold conversations about gender-based and sexual violence.
“Speaking out and reliving trauma is a painful process. Today, Western students have shown incredible strength and resilience. Western supports today’s walkout and we will continue to move forward to enhance security and safety on campus,” he said in a statement.
Western announced Thursday that it will require students in residence to take training sessions on sexual violence and consent as it works to address what it describes as a problematic campus culture.
The measure is part of a new action plan that will also see the university hire 100 new “safety ambassadors” — a mix of upper-year undergraduates and graduate students who will work overnight in residences.
The school also plans to create a task force that will take “a comprehensive look” at student safety.