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Drink Spiking: What can KCL, London, and the UK actually do?

drink spiking

Roar writer Justine Noble on the epidemic of drink spiking sweeping KCL, London and UK and what we can do about it:

This weekend was going to be great. Last-minute on Saturday, while I was out shopping with my best friend, she invited me to go to one of London’s most loved clubs: Ballie Ballerson. After having seen all my friends post cute mirror selfies of themselves all dressed up in the colourful fluorescent ball pits, I was so excited. I rushed home, got ready, ubered to the club and we were finally there. But the minute I got through the door and ordered my first drink the anxiety kicked in. “Keep your hand over your drink,” my friend told me. I kept forgetting, but the reminders were constant.

“Keep your hand over your drink, you don’t want to get spiked.”

While I was always taught to be cautious going out and have tried my best to keep myself and others safe, spiking, in my eyes, was one of those things you know is very real, but you never come face to face with. You don’t think it will happen to you. And when it does happen to someone, it is almost unbelievable. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same. Unfortunately though, at universities across the UK right now, an unprecedented spiking epidemic has made spiking a daily occurrence; a fact of life to which we have become numb and accustomed. Here at King’s, we too have had no choice at all but to confront this harsh reality. We’ve had no choice because it’s looking us right in the face. Not only are King’s students getting spiked, but they’re getting spiked in our own community spaces, places designed to be safe for us, being hurt by people we thought we could trust.

One such space, where for many students the first wave of spiking became very real is Dover Castle (DC), a popular King’s hub in Borough, South London. Starting in September, reports began to emerge of serial drink spiking, six incidents taking place within a single night on Friday, October 1. The number and severity of the incidents, some promoting urgent medical attention, left several KCL sports societies pleading for people to avoid DC for the time being. But the problem didn’t end with DC. All throughout London, reports of spiking began to surge, so much so that ‘Girls Night In’ nights (pub and club boycotts) have been organized nationwide by newly-founded support and awareness groups as well as uni sports societies for October 27 and November 5.

But there are bad people everywhere, right? Why are we punishing clubs for incidents out of their control? Well, the fact of the matter is that there is so much more pubs and clubs can do to protect their customers. For one, why has an apparent massive increase in the number of spikings not led to a change in how drinks are presented? Why are pubs and clubs not purchasing beverage covers to put over their drinks when these tools exist and are readily available? Due to a disturbing amount of spikings via injection that are also taking place, increased searching when entering clubs, dark clubs especially, is paramount. As a bartender myself, I can disturbingly and regretfully say that I’ve never been trained on how to spot a roofied drink or been told to look out for them. Sometimes, we even leave drinks out on the bar for people who have ordered to come collect and walk out of sight. I’m sad these incidents had to happen for me to stop and think about what’s wrong with that picture.

When you walk into The Vault under KCL’s Bush House, you see the bare minimum: a sign that tells you “spiking is a crime.” While this is true, this one-sided approach which focuses all its attention on spikers is a) a powerless piece of paper and b) dodging accountability. It’s time pubs and clubs take responsibility for the many ways in which they can keep us safe.

Venue responsibility is something Zahra Syed, our KCLSU President, echoes in her statement on the matter:

“Sabbatical officers at KCLSU are aware of the recent reported rise of drink spiking incidents. We want to be clear that we believe that drink spiking in itself is not only an abhorrent act but is also classified as criminal activity. At KCLSU we are trying to build awareness within our community on the subject and risks of drink spiking and the importance of taking preventative measures, to ensure the safety of our student body In my capacity as KCLSU president, I have also written to Southwark Council expressing our concerns following reports in local venues and demanding more measures to be set in place to ensure student safety. This problem is a citywide and sadly can spread into university spaces or events. King’s College London has been working to support and report services and I will continue to work to ensure the student voice is represented properly. Finally I aim to create culture change at Kings to properly tackle harassment in our student spaces.”

Ms Syed’s statement also pointed students towards the KCLSU student officers team’s statement on the increase in drink spiking in London.

It is important though that KCL venues do not see themselves as separate from independent pubs and clubs in London. Our university is just as responsible for what goes on inside its doors as any other establishment in Southwark or elsewhere. We need to hold King’s venues just as accountable. In fact, we must hold and demand a higher standard from our venues. Moreover, we need to accept the sad possibility that spiking and sexual assault probably did not “spread” onto campus, but are painfully inherent within our community. With that, Syed is right: we not only need tangible preventative measures, but attitude changes via education and awareness that venture into deeper issues of sexism and misogyny.

In that regard, however, the future isn’t looking all too bleak. While it is no mystery that university sports societies often are associated with toxic masculinity and other harmful traditions in terms of race, gender, sexuality, etc., 22 sports societies at KCL along with It Happens Here KCL have written and signed a letter to the college and its SU demanding a variety of concrete measures against spiking. These include increased and bettered bag checks and a review of disciplinary action against sexism, misogyny, and harassment. Toxic sport culture is also being directly and openly attacked, the letter vouching for mandatory training for all sports society members and incoming freshers in general in topics such as consent, sexual harassment, gender-based violence, attitudes and behaviours leading to cultures of gender-based violence, and reporting incidents.

It is a shame however that the students at King’s seem to be doing the most while the institution we’re supposed to be proud of lags far behind us. In response to increased spiking incidents, King’s College Health Center stated, “the best advice would be that if a person thinks their drink has been spiked, they should call 111 and the Met police. We encourage patients to call us in the morning if they feel they need medical advice and support after the incident so that we can help them based on their individual needs and circumstances.” They additionally offer help via The Havens, a sexual assault centre with a practice at King’s College Hospital, Camberwell. While these words are kind and the life-saving qualities of post-sexual assault medical help can never be understated, it was not too long ago I found myself at King’s College Hospital trying to help a friend and found it hard to get my foot through the door. The Havens were closed and uncontactable by hospital staff. Once they were contacted, they had little respect for patient comfort and choices regarding further action and information sharing. Without them, hospital staff had little advice to give and unfortunately, far too little empathy. We should not live in a world where being brave and facing post-sexual assault/harassment trauma is further traumatizing.

The bottom line is: the spiking, sexual harassment, and sexual assault which continue to unfold right in front of students’ eyes are not being taken seriously enough. They are not being taken seriously enough by our university-wide leadership, by our SU, by our pubs, or by our health care providers. Until these groups adopt solid measures that will work to protect women and marginalized genders as well as start the slow but steady erasure of toxic cultures at KCL, nothing will change. Statements on how we can better keep ourselves safe mean nothing without action. In fact, all they do is victim-blame. While it’s sad we live in a world where we have to pay with our physical and mental health to a grave extent to finally see change, living in a world where this remains the cost of a night-out is even sadder. Hopefully, this year’s spiking epidemic has finally given people the shock they need to build long-lasting solutions.

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