Officers are going door to door at a Western University student residence as they investigate allegations of mass drugging and sexual assaults during the school's orientation week, the police chief in London, Ont., said Tuesday.
Chief Steve Williams said investigators are trying to gather as much information as they can at Medway-Sydenham Hall after allegations circulated on social media that upwards of 30 women were sexually assaulted at the student residence over the weekend.
"These are serious and disturbing allegations and they have been taken seriously from the onset," Williams said at a news conference.
However, the chief said, no one has come forward with a complaint to police so far.
"At this point in time, the London police have not received any reports pertained to drugging and/or sexual assaults in Medway-Sydenham Hall," he said.
Before those allegations began circulating, police received formal complaints from four women alleging they were victims of sexual assaults in different residences on campus, Williams said.
"Our investigation will include examining any possible linkages between the various incidents," he said.
Alan Shepard, Western's president, said the school is working with police.
"The allegations that we've seen on social media over the weekend is very troubling to all of us," he said at the same news conference. "I’m pleased that the London police is actively investigating them with Western's assistance and working to ensure our students feel safe and secure on campus."
Western had said it removed students from residence and was "facilitating arrest" in connection with the four earlier complainants. Police said Tuesday that they arrested one man, a Western student, in connection with those cases but released him without charges.
A gender-based violence shelter in London said it was setting up a safe space at Western to support students on campus.
AnnaLise Trudell, manager of education, training and research at Anova, said counsellors would be on campus Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night to provide drop-in support to students, who returned last week.
"Students need a safe space right now," Trudell said. "They'll be able to come and discuss issues in a group space and our counsellors will be there off to the side in individual private spaces to do more of that sort of clinical counselling."
The series of allegations came as the university confirmed that an 18-year-old student died after being assaulted near campus over the weekend.
Police said Gabriel Neil was found seriously injured in the early hours of Saturday morning and died the next day. A 21-year old, Aliyan Ahmed, has been charged with manslaughter. Western said the person charged was not a student.
"We're devastated by Gabe's senseless death and our hearts are with his family, and friends and those at Western who were coming to know him," Shepard, Western's president, said.
Western's student council said Neil was a first-year health science student.
"We know this tragedy will be difficult to process given how challenging the past few days have been for our student community," the University Students' Council said in a statement Tuesday.
"Please take care of yourselves and each other. We all deserve to feel safe on campus and we know our community does not right now."
Trudell, with the gender-based violence shelter, said Anova has seen a spike in calls to its sexual assault and gender-based violence crisis line in recent days, as well as a slew of private messages on social media.
She said orientation week is a dangerous time for young women at campuses across the country.
"We see an increase in calls to crisis lines in terms of sexual assault centres across the country both during and after this week, as well as requests for counselling support," Trudell said.
According to the Student Voices on Sexual Violence, a survey of post-secondary students across the province, one in three Western students surveyed indicated they were sexually assaulted in the previous 12 months. More than 8,000 Western students responded to the survey.
"That was on the high end," Trudell said. "But all campuses have sexual assault numbers that are uncomfortably high."
She said women are very leery of reporting sexual assaults, with some studies suggesting only one in 10 will do so.
London's police chief said he understands that trepidation, but said the force has been working hard on a "trauma-informed, victim-centric approach."
"I want women to know they will be believed, offered supports, whatever works for them to facilitate them coming forward and we'll work with them and we'll conduct an objective and bias-free investigation," he said.
Western said it is offering counselling to students and options to victims such as help filing a formal complaint or accessing support services without doing so.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2021.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press