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As frosh begins, Western beefs up safety after student death, sexual assault reports last year

Western University and its student union overhauled orientation for this fall after a first-year student died near campus during last year’s frosh and at least four women reported sexual assaults. 

The student union’s safety programming includes a mandatory gender-based sexual violence course the 8,000 incoming first-years had to take before arriving on campus this week. 

Other steps include new training for the orientation leaders, including a two-week course that covers anti-racism policies, mental health support and sexualized violence.

It’s in response to an investigation sparked by reports of sexual violence and drugging of students at last year’s events, as well as the death of first-year student, Gabriel Neil, near the university. Thousands of students staged a walkout last September, calling on the university to create an environment free of misogyny and violence. 

And though first-year students Jana Gonzalez and Hannah Thompson say they’re looking forward to attending orientation, they’re wary after what happened last year — and said they’ve created safety plans as they attend frosh. 

Jana Gonzalez, left, and Hannah Thompson are excited to start their first year at Western University. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

“It makes me kind of nervous hearing what happened, but I know if I stick with the right people I’ll be safe,” Gonzalez said. “I’m definitely going to watch my drinks.”

Thompson echoed her fellow first-year, saying she also plans to cover her beverage cups at all times. 

“Hearing about the stuff that happened last year, it is a little concerning and brings your guard up more, but I know my friends and I are going to look out for each other,” she said.

Counsellors on campus

That’s why the student union’s programming is geared toward safety, its vice-president, Cameron Cawston said. The latest addition to orientation week is several “care hubs” on campus, which she said will be clearly marked and accessible to students at all times.

The care hubs will offer resources, including university wellness counsellors, and support from the Canadian Mental Health Association, as well as food, water, condoms and menstrual products. 

Cameron Cawston is vice-president of student support and programming at Western’s student union. She’ll be leading this year’s orientation programming. (Submitted by Western University Student Council)

“It’s that visual cue, being able to see more security and resources across campus, which as somebody who identifies as female, would make me feel safer,” Cawston said.

“This experience is designed for them, their safety is our No.1 priority.”

Support during major life change

The changes to orientation do make Thompson feel safer, she said. 

“They know what happened and they acknowledged it, and they’re finding ways to make it more safe,” she said. “I think that’ll help everyone feel welcome.”

The university and the student union have focused on creating programs to support students during a major life transition, Cawston said. 

“We also have academic [orientation] designed in partnership with faculty advisory, so we’re not only supporting [students’] social transition into Western but also their academic for the next four years,” she said. 

Katherine Hajjar, left, and Camille Gilbert will be second-year sophs at orientation week this year. They plan to make sure their groups of students are safe and together at all times. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

Katherine Hajjar attended O-week as a first-year student last year. This year, she’s an off-campus sophomore, and she said she feels better knowing there are new safety measures in place.

“Last year, I was a frosh so I didn’t know the ins and outs [of Western],” she said. “This year, I’ll be making sure that all my frosh … get home safely and that we all have each other’s phone numbers in case anything happens.” 

The student union also launched the USCNOW app, which gives students information about the campus and orientation.

Cawston said that last year showed that there needed to be a culture change, and she said she thinks the safety programming is a step in the right direction. 

“We want students to know that their sophs are here to support them and they’re not only ambassadors for our campus community, but they’re a direct connection to student leaders whose goal is to make your transition into university as smooth and safe as possible.”

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