We Need Talk about AU’s Wellness Checks
By Joey Krassner
I remember the feeling I had before filing my first and only anonymous wellness report. It felt like the right thing to do because holding sensitive information and being powerless to do anything about felt wrong. We all have a right to be concerned with those we care about, but never should anyone bear the full weight of someone else’s emotions. I’m not a therapist. You’re not a therapist. But thankfully American University and other higher education institutions recognize the complex makeup of its students and institute safety nets such as health centers and care networks to make sure students don’t slip through the cracks. For this, I’m am thankful for AU for giving me an outlet so that someone I cared for would at least recognize that someone as concerned for their well-being.
But as grateful as I am for AU’s safety net, there is one glaring problem that if not addressed, will completely undermine any benefits these networks have towards helping people: The role of AUPD. Now when I say the role of AUPD, I mean their purpose within AU’s Care Reporting system and not as an institution. In 2016, AU developed a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) after recognizing the need to train officers for crisis intervention, however, the success in coordinating the wellness checks is at best questionable. Though most of us have probably forgotten, AU’s School of International Service sent all SIS students an email following Inside Higher ED publishing of an article early January this year which not only challenged AU’s wellness check system following an off-campus incident with Zach Mills’s, a doctoral student in SIS, but called out the racism within AU’s PhD program. While SIS students who received the email probably had no idea the article existed (I sure didn’t), it reflected a clear disconnect between AU and its students over the idea of well-being.
The email defended the diversity of SIS’s PhD program, which is expected, however, nowhere in the email is Zach Mills referenced and nowhere in the email is AUPD’s handling of his “wellness check” mentioned. I didn’t expect it to be mentioned, but for a university so concerned with facing, it bothers me that the university never further acknowledged this story. Mills’s story reflects a pattern of similar questionable trends AUPD has towards handling wellness checks. While his encounter did not result in a forcible removal like that of Gianna Wheeler, it does beg the question towards how AUPD officers are trained to handle wellness checks. Mills even noted in the article that the first officers to arrive, regular DC police officers, were having a normal conversation before the arrival of AUPD officers. While this begs multiple questions such as the legality for AUPD to even show up at non-university owned housing, it seems that the training CIT has either has inherent flaws or the information through training is not fully acted on.
Every word, movement, and action is important when handling a crisis. Being careless and callous when interacting with a sensitive individual is not only reckless, but potentially dangerous. Now I understand how stressful it can be to be in charge of handling someone who is not “well.” As someone who has a autistic brother, I’ve learned how important every word is towards deescalating someone who is undergoing a meltdown. It’s not easy knowing that our words and actions, as powerful as they are, might not be enough to comfort someone or even escalate an already tenuous situation. But what happens if don’t put our best foot forward and get careless even one time. We get a situation like Zach Mills. Where someone who faced multiple counts of discrimination within SIS and was already questioning the racism within the school is left feeling unsafe even in his own home.
Again, I recognize the difficulty in analyzing and handling such a delicate situation, but we can’t afford to be lazy and complacent. We need to do better. A lot better.