Senate hears about Homecoming plan

The time has come for “decisive action” regarding a particularly notorious street party that has marred official Homecoming celebrations and frustrated university and city officials in recent years, two top university officials told Senate Friday afternoon.

“Whatever is said to me today, I am fine with it,” said Janice Deakin, Vice-President (Academic). “But I would rather be standing here talking about this now than next year after we have a student who has been killed, a family’s life destroyed.”

On May 31, Western officials announced this year’s Homecoming celebration has been moved to Saturday, Oct. 22, in an effort to address a variety of concerns associated with an unsanctioned street party on Broughdale Avenue. ‘Homecoming Saturday’ will feature a football-centric experience for participants. Previously planned faculty reunions, as well as the Alumni Awards of Merit and Golden Anniversary dinners, will still take place as originally planned on Reunion Weekend, Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

“As Western’s president and as a parent, my greatest concern is the safety of our students,” Western President Amit Chakma said. “University administration, London Police Service, Middlesex-London Emergency Management Services, City of London officials and hospital medical staff have held several meetings on this issue and we all share concerns this street party has escalated to such levels that more decisive action is required.

“Some people have described moving the date as a radical solution – moving the date is not a radical solution. We are not cancelling Homecoming; we are trying to protect it.”

Despite the university’s “best efforts” to dissuade students from attending the party on Broughdale Avenue, a neighbourhood adjacent to Western’s campus, it has become an unsafe environment in the eyes of many. Attracting as many as 10,000 young people, this event has involved not only Western students, but others who have no connection to the university, including busloads from other universities, high school students, as well as individuals police have identified as having “criminal histories.”

These kinds of parties are not unique to London and are occurring with more frequency and severity in university and college towns and cities throughout North America, Western officials said. However, police describe the Broughdale party as a “powder keg” – that it is only a matter of “when” not “if” someone is killed or seriously injured.

Deakin admitted she was “not happy” with the timing of the Homecoming changes. Her preference would have been to address the issue immediately after last year’s event. However, her first meeting on Homecoming 2015 was seven months later on April 21, when she huddled with university officials from Advancement, Alumni, Housing, Student Experience, Registrar, Campus Community Police Service and Communications and Public Affairs.

“At that meeting, I thought we were going to be discussing some kind of incremental changes to Homecoming,” Deakin told Senators. “Instead, I was faced with our campus police saying to me this cannot go on as it has gone on. Incremental change is not going to satisfy the dangers we face.”

The numbers from last year seem to bear out that depiction by police.

Between 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, 31 ambulances were dispatched to Western and Broughdale Avenue – 16 of those were incidents on Broughdale. A total of 23 patients were transported to hospital – 11 of whom came from Broughdale.

Police reported six serious injuries on Broughdale including one student who fell on a fence and another who had a severe allergic reaction. Stacia Pepper, in her second year at King’s University College, received a Citizen Citation Award from the London Police Service Board for her actions during Homecoming Weekend which helped save that woman’s life. Pepper and a friend, Shawn Hope, a Fanshawe student, who also received the award, administered CPR to the woman in anaphylactic shock while they waited for emergency responders to navigate through the massive crowd.

Hospital officials said they were stretched to respond to other emergency room patients because of the number of students arriving, most of whom had consumed too much alcohol, some in combination with drugs.

“Homecoming is about alumni returning to their institution,” Deakin said. “The fact our students enjoy this party is not the main purpose of Homecoming. And now, this party is really affecting the Homecoming for our graduates based on the behaviour of our students.”

Senator Harry Orbach-Miller, a student representative from Social Science, pressed on what level students were involved in the decision.

Deakin said students were not at the table among this core group, although student leadership was informed throughout the process. “Students did not make the decision; this was a management decision,” she said. “My recommendation to the president is that we move it.”

She continued, “This wasn’t going to be a vote. Sometimes decisions have to be made with the best information you have. We did what we thought was right given the timing and events we were faced with.”

Western administrators hope the increased academic pressures of assignments and exam preparation that is the norm in late October will not only reduce the number of students who attend the party, but also the number of students who come from other universities. As well, university officials are rooting for less favourable weather for a street party in late October.

Orbach-Miller also referenced a “longstanding tradition of not scheduling examinations on Homecoming Weekend.” He asked if that tradition would be honoured this fall.

Deakin pointed out there is “no such tradition, no such policy, no such practice.”

This fall, the university will roll out a targeted campaign to ensure students understand the legal and safety risks they are taking when they host or attend large parties, the dangers of binge drinking and possible repercussions according to Western’s Code of Student Conduct.

“London Police Service has been working closely with Western administrators and other community partners to address this issue and we support the university in its decision to move Homecoming,” London Police Service Deputy Chief Steve Williams said. “In addition to a strong police presence on Broughdale, we are all hopeful that our collective efforts in advance will help students understand the risks this party poses to themselves and their community so they will make the decision not to attend.”

In terms of plans for 2017, Chakma and Deakin promised a full debrief will take place in late October to determine how the university will approach Homecoming moving forward.