• The Resident Assistants at American University

An Open Letter to AUPD, H&RL, and the AU Administration, Signed by 58 RAs

To AUPD, Housing & Residence Life, AU Administrators:

We, AU Resident Assistants, are writing this to you in light of the racist actions from police departments across the United States (re: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the numerous other incidents of police violence both known and unknown). This is not the first time we have raised concerns about police presence during incidents and incident follow-up; we want to make explicitly clear the need for repurposing the budget and redirecting how incidents are handled. As effective first responders, Resident Assistants are required to call AUPD for any thematic incident (e.g. alcohol and other drugs, sexual assault, mental health, etc.) wherein AUPD are not qualified to handle the recourse of what residents require. Similarly, Residents Assistants are not trained adequately to handle situations of this caliber, but we recognize clear points of improvement for the health and safety of our communities. It is such that our demands need to be met.

The following demands outline a need for a health-forward approach rather than punitive measures. Ultimately, the ways and means of incident response from AUPD endangers residents and Resident Assistants alike. Improper training, long wait times, and police presence is ineffective and problematic. American University’s operating budget for FY20 and FY21 specifically dictates an increase in funding for staff positions in the areas of student health and wellness. As the first line of defense regarding most incidents on campus, we know exactly where the funding should go.

Ending our Relationship with MPD

American University NAACP issued a statement on May 28th, 2020 calling for the “end [of] our University’s relationship with the Metropolitan Police Department.” We fully support this demand. In our experience, MPD is often called unnecessarily and swiftly for issues regarding racial discrimination, sexual misconduct, and alcohol incidents in the residence halls. Resident Assistants have seen first hand how MPD’s presence has escalated situations rather than supported residents.

For these reasons, we echo American University NAACP’s statement calling for “the end of MPD presence at large speaking events or concerts and the end of MPD backing during mental health wellness checks."

Protocols from RAs must take a mental health forward approach emphasizing a need for a community health professional (e.g. mental health professional or social worker).

The current protocol requires Resident Assistant on Duty (RAOD) to call AUPD in serious incidents; for almost every incident, AUPD arrives. Those incidents include themes such as racism, sexual assault, and mental health wherein none of the expertise falls within their purview. However, of their own admission, from student perspectives, and by RA accounts, AUPD is incapable of handling incidents of these themes. Additionally, the number of officers arriving at incidents does not match the severity of the incident; a typical incident has anywhere from five to ten officers on scene. Instead, there needs to be a community health professional available 24/7 with options in-person and on-call.

Community health professionals rather than police presence have proven to reduce harm within communities. Looking at higher educational institutions specifically, there is precedent for in-house community health workers. University of Iowa has implemented in-house counseling and has cited, “There has been an amazing shift in campus culture and support for people living with mental illness.” We demand that similar action be taken at American University for likewise improvement in our student culture and community.

Mental health checks must be performed by community health professionals. Whether it exists through properly trained Community Directors (CDs) or community health professionals, trained health professionals must be conducting health evaluations. It is equally imperative that CDs and RAs receive adequate and continued training on maintaining community health within the residence halls to promote safety and wellbeing of residents. Actionably, this looks like consistent training (i.e. semester training) with a focus on comprehensive mental health practices and an emphasis on transparent report processes (i.e. CARE, Incident Report Form [IRF]).

Put the power into the community it stems from. The current process also requires multiple reviews of forms to community members, wherein professional staff (“pro staff”) read about incidents following events. In such, pro staff is removed from the community it directs. The power is thus put into AUPD, which does not fully understand the manners in which the various residential communities operate. This promotes distrust in RAs and CDs alike due to the nature of strangeness inserting itself into incidents. By having a community health professional and/or community director as the primary response, the power (and subsequent trust) is kept within the community. This tenet is the crux of Housing & Residence Life to begin with: community first. Our protocols must protect and amplify that.

Decrease AUPD presence and oversight in the residence halls

AUPD's presence during incidents creates similar problems for residents and Resident Assistants as does MPD's presence. Their existence has been extremely counterintuitive to our students’ and staff’s mental health. Quite frankly, our jobs are made harder. Residents have expressed greater distress with AUPD's presence at incidents, which has resulted in a strained relationship between Resident Assistants and residents. We call on the university to decrease the amount of officers responding to incidents and divert funds to community wellness programs in the halls, such as for counselors and social workers who have the expertise and training to respond to the plethora of incidents that occur.

Decreasing AUPD presence and oversight means we need to bolster our efforts to promote transparency. Establishing stronger communication channels between our campus resources can be done through a council of elected Resident Assistants who can have recurring meetings with our mental health partners and AUPD to continue to work on all of these demands and facilitate future concerns.

Resident Assistants have historically called for an evaluation of AUPDs spending on programs and incident responses. Their budget for FY 2020 is totaled at upwards of $8.6 million dollars with expenses towards crime prevention and community engagement tactics. From their own annual security report they indicate “AUPD and Housing and Residence Life sponsor seminars on a variety of subjects that could help students prevent crime from happening to them”. No RA has seen any such programs, and we live and work there. This is extremely concerning.

These demands are necessary for our community, our jobs, and our residents. AUPD and MPD have consistently worsened incidents, specifically racist incidents, both in and beyond the residence halls. We as RAs are calling for structural change with an emphasis on reduction/abolition of police presence in incident responses. In order for our jobs to be done better, these items must be completed. In order for our communities to flourish, the police need to exit and community health needs to enter, especially for Black members of our community in all facets.

As of June 9, 58 American University Resident Assistants have signed this open letter.

Image courtesy Chris Flath, Creative Commons

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