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Saturday, April 20, 2024
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Student who was forcibly removed from her apartment by AUPD in 2019 sues AU

Lawsuit states Gianna Wheeler was discriminated against based on her race and mental health condition

Gianna Wheeler, a School of International Service senior who was forcibly removed from her apartment by AUPD in 2019, filed a lawsuit against American University on Friday morning.

Dean of Students Jeffrey Brown, AUPD officers Kevin Barrett, Michael Vena and Joseph Joyner, and MPD officers Stephen Kinzer, Deborah Smith and Richard David are also listed as defendants.

“Ms. Wheeler’s goals in this lawsuit are really to change the policies and practices at AU, so that no other student like her experiences this kind of abuse at the hands of the police,” Kaitlin Banner, Wheeler’s counsel, said. “We’re addressing the culture that led to this.”

Wheeler’s representatives, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, allege that she was grossly mistreated by officers from both departments when they forcibly removed her from her apartment in the Frequency Apartments after a student allegedly complained that Wheeler assaulted them. 

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, disputes the claim of assault and that the officers’ response was at all justified. It highlights a series of alleged abuses by the police, AU decision-makers and Brown in particular, which culminated in Wheeler being restrained at a hospital for days on end, suspended from school and forced to defend her actions to a University panel, while students protested on her behalf

The lawsuit argues that the actions of the defendants violated a slew of federal and district laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the D.C. Human Rights Act, the U.S. Constitution and D.C. common law. It alleges that Wheeler was discriminated against based on her race and mental health condition, and that the entry of officers into her home and her seizure at the hands of those officers broke multiple laws. 

Wheeler and her lawyers request a trial by jury to obtain recognition that her rights were violated, monetary compensation for damages and attorneys’ fees and the removal of any academic consequences that resulted from the incidents and her suspension. 

The lawsuit alleges that on Sept. 26, 2019, seven AUPD and MPD officers obtained a key to her locked room without a warrant, unlocking it over her objections. At first, Wheeler was accused of assaulting a dean; when she denied the claim, the officers called Brown, and then accused her of assaulting a student, the suit alleges. 

The officers told Wheeler that she needed to agree to go to an in-patient psychiatric facility for evaluation. For hours, the lawsuit alleges, the officers — at various points joined by EMTs and Director of Residence Life Lisa Freeman — continued to pressure Wheeler, until they eventually handcuffed her, wrapped her in a blanket and transported her “kicking and screaming” to Washington Hospital Center.

Video of Wheeler’s removal went viral on social media, “causing severe embarrassment for Ms. Wheeler,” the lawsuit states. 

The suit states that young, Black women like Wheeler are at heightened risk from police actions. It references various police killings of Black people across the U.S. Despite Wheeler’s “calm demeanor” throughout most of the initial incident, her lawyers argue, she was still painted as mentally unstable. 

“It is always a challenge to hold police and institutions accountable for these kinds of actions,” Banner said. “We hope that this lawsuit is one, in a series of many actions that are happening across the country — protests, uprisings, the filing of criminal charges and the filing of civil lawsuits — that will help to hold police and others accountable for the actions that they’re taking against Black Americans.”

The lawsuit argues that the defendants did not adequately investigate the claims made against Wheeler, despite lack of a warrant or probable cause, or reasonable belief she was a danger to herself or others. The suit states that Wheeler was deemed not responsible for violations of AU’s conduct code at an October hearing.

AU spokesperson Stacie Burgess told The Eagle in an emailed statement on Friday afternoon that the University hadn’t yet been served the lawsuit, but plans to “defend its position and address inaccurate portrayals of its actions.”

“While we cannot comment on pending litigation or individual student matters, all safety protocols were followed in a non-discriminatory manner that prioritizes the well-being of our students and our community,” Burgess wrote. “Our collaborative emergency response procedures emphasize de-escalation and support.”

Gianna Wheeler has not responded to The Eagle at this time.

MPD stated that the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Sophie Austin and Fariha Rahman contributed reporting to this article.

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