Staff Editorial: Lawsuit reminds AU and students of confusion surrounding AUPD, mental health procedure
Role of campus police and departments raises significant institutional questions
As reported by The Eagle on Sept. 25, a student filed a lawsuit against American University, alleging discrimination based on mental health condition and race after they were forcibly removed from their apartment in fall 2019. The Eagle Editorial Board chose not to name the student in the interest of minimizing harm to that student. The removal occurred at the Frequency Apartments, where AU leases apartments. The lawsuit names Dean of Students Jeffrey Brown, AUPD officers and Metropolitan Police Department officers. The lawsuit alleges that after hours of pressuring the student to commit themselves to go to a hospital, the student was forcibly removed, wrapped in a blanket with handcuffs, and the student spent the next several days in a hospital.
For those students on campus in fall 2019, they may remember this incident, as it went viral on social media and led to protests on behalf of the student. The lawsuit alleges that a conduct hearing panel found no wrongdoing on the part of the student who had been accused of assault before the forced removal from their apartment.
This incident is disturbing on an individual level, but also as a picture of how our society treats Black women, especially those struggling with mental health disorders. This lawsuit calls into question what the University’s practices are regarding these situations, and what policy may harm Black students and other students of color. In particular, it calls into question the role of police, and what the procedures for students in mental health crises actually are. Minimizing harm should be the guiding force behind such policy, but this case raises questions of how different people may understand what minimizing harm means.
This is a moment to demand more from the University regarding mental health and mental health’s relationship with race and policing.
The role of AUPD and MPD in this incident is a reminder of the complex relationship between campus and city police and those departments' relationship with the University student body. Across the country, there have been calls to abolish police; the AU NAACP chapter has made its own call for dissolving ties between AUPD and MPD. AU spokesperson Stacie Burgess told The Eagle that cutting all ties with MPD “would require a change in D.C. regulations.” These discussions surrounding police abolition specifically mention the questionable role police take during mental health crises or welfare checks, and whether or not this should be part of the job. Furthermore, the strained relationship between police and Black communities frankly would make even the calmest student on edge. All of us have now witnessed how terrifying encounters with local law enforcement can turn.
The necessity of AUPD being in the room, that they opened themselves, is a legitimate question. The University needs to take a look at what benefit having police officers, campus or city, armed or not, actually has when addressing mental health concerns. AUPD has made students fearful through their actions. AUPD officers are not mental health experts, even if they have received some training. Training is not enough to ensure that officers are always making the right choice for a student who needs help.
AUPD is highly visible on campus. The assumption is that students would feel safer and those spreading hate on our campus would be deterred (especially following a 2017 racist hate crime); however, there were still more hateful posters on campus after May 2017. There is a disconnect on campus between AUPD’s visibility and actually making campus safer, even in feeling. When graduate students are arrested for unlawful entry, that doesn’t make students safer. When there are multiple instances of theft on campus and the head of AUPD tells The Eagle that he isn’t aware of a spike, that doesn’t make students feel safer. But, at least AUPD is always there for alcohol poisoning or ensuring students are committed involuntarily to hospitals.
Students need to know what to do in these situations and what role, exactly, AUPD gets to have on campus. The University needs to much more clearly, not just in long-winded housing contracts, let students know what their rights are in what functions as their home. If student housing does not guarantee a safe space from entrance into rooms without consent, then students must be fully aware of that. When and what for AUPD should or will be called needs to be reiterated in clear language, not just a brief presentation at Eagle Summit that focuses more on how AUPD is here to help. The question stands: help with what and for who?
The other significant question this incident raises is what, exactly, is protocol at the University regarding mental health crises. Members of the AU community can file Care reports if they believe a student is in severe crisis. Care reports go to the Dean of Students office and are evaluated by members of that team. As every student is reminded in emails from the University, there is the AU Counseling Center as a confidential resource, where students (pre-pandemic) often need to wait weeks for an appointment. There are also other confidential sources, including in the Kay Spiritual Life Center, the Student Health Center and OASIS at the Health Promotion and Advocacy Center. Students can also discuss issues with their RAs, who are mandatory reporters, and may need to get the Dean of Students office or Office of Equity and Title IX involved.
So what, exactly, are students supposed to do in a major crisis? The answer is unclear between all these departments. At a university where students are always asking for better mental health services, it would seem that a first step is clarifying which services are appropriate for different situations. Students should not be left wondering who to get in touch with and should not wonder what will happen to them if they do reach out. Being committed to a hospital is taxing, especially when it's involuntary. No student should be surprised by that as an outcome for sharing something with an RA for example, or a faculty member who then files a Care report. Protocol for committing students is especially important to clarify, and as this incident shows, the University may spend hours trying to convince a student. The lawsuit alleges that MPD officers involved eventually called EMTs, who stated in their report that the student’s mental status was “normal baseline for patient.”
This incident began with the University and ends with a confused student body, asking for better help from their University. AU can at least tell students what the role of AUPD is in their lives. They can clearly lay out the different paths students in crisis can take to find help. Better investment in a resource like the AU Counseling Center instead of diffuse responsibility between departments is a worthwhile step. No matter what, confusion about such important things cannot continue.
Students' well-being depends on it.