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Students take part in parties and gatherings in a neighbourhood around Western University in London, Ont., with an increased police presence during the school's homecoming weekend on Sept. 25, 2021.Nicole Osborne/The Canadian Press

Only a few thousand people attended unsanctioned street parties under heavy police presence at the University of Western Ontario’s homecoming – a sharp contrast to the 25,000 partiers that flooded student neighbourhoods in previous years.

The relatively subdued celebrations come as the university deals with an academic year that started with a student killed, four complaints of sexual assault, and allegations on social media that several students were drugged and some sexually assaulted during orientation week. London police are investigating the allegations, but last week said no victims or witnesses have come forward.

More than 100 emergency-service and bylaw officials were stationed on Broughdale Avenue, a street known for large student parties, over the weekend, and police vehicles blocked off roads in the neighbourhood beginning early Saturday morning. Police officers came from as far as Hamilton and York Region to bolster London Police Service staff.

Authorities threatened fines of up to $5,000 for attending gatherings in violation of public-health orders.

On Sunday, police and bylaw officials said the number of students charged or fined this year would not be available until Monday.

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Parties on the front lawns of Broughdale houses grew gradually Saturday morning until the crowds got rowdy around 1 p.m. and police moved them off the street. The students migrated to nearby Huron Street, where gatherings continued until police scattered them four hours later.

In the evening, bars in downtown London had short lines, but people wandered student neighbourhoods near Broughdale and Western’s campus in large groups in search of house parties. The roads were reopened, but police continued to monitor the area.

By midnight, the crowds on Huron Street had grown large and wild as police focused efforts on Broughdale. Videos on social media show students on Huron Street jumping into crowds from telephone poles and crowd-surfing past 1 a.m.

In 2016, Western moved homecoming to October in an attempt to deter illegal street parties. Students organized “fake homecoming” on their preferred date in late September.

The unsanctioned celebrations grew steadily from 11,000 people in 2016 to 25,000 in 2019. That year also had 800 emergency calls, 14 arrests and 31 people sent to hospital.

The university relented in spring, 2020, and moved the official homecoming back to September, although the pandemic stalled the celebrations.

Barbara Jones Warrick, a professor of psychotherapy at Wilfrid Laurier University who lives near Broughdale, picked up party garbage from Huron Street on Saturday. She has seen many homecoming parties in the neighbourhood, and said this year’s felt “pretty typical.”

“I think Western’s attempts in the past to ‘shut it down’ and move homecoming later to avoid this kind of thing wasn’t effective, and it shows a lack of real awareness of who it is they’re talking to,” Prof. Jones Warrick said.

“I don’t want to see our city turned into a police state. I also don’t want to see it trashed. So we need to figure out how to engage in dialogue between the powers that be and the people who party.”

In addition to the crews on Broughdale, dozens of emergency services vehicles parked at a nearby lot, and Western University volunteers patrolled campus offering students water bottles and directing them to free food trucks in the centre of campus, away from the street parties.

Before this year’s homecoming, Western’s president Alan Shepard sent an e-mail entreating students to avoid off-campus street parties and reminding them the student code of conduct could apply to “serious incidents” in the community, which could result in academic probation or expulsion.

“Unsanctioned street parties present all sorts of risks. The potential for injury and violence is real,” Dr. Shepard said in a statement. “Those risks are compounded right now by the threat of COVID-19.”

Western did not respond to a request for comment on the events of this year’s homecoming.

Prof. Jones Warrick said that, while the parties on Broughdale are a disruption, she understands where the students are coming from.

“It’s developmentally appropriate, and for people to expect anything different, I think is unreasonable.”

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