Ultra Vires


The Problem with University Mental Health Crisis Management

Rethinking police presence on campus

Content Warning: discussion of suicide, descriptions of incidents of police violence, and mental illness

In the last issue of Ultra Vires, my colleague Harry Myles (2L) and I wrote about the University Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) and why students have been advocating for better mental health infrastructure within our University community. 

UMLAP is under review this year, and the question of what an appropriate mental health crisis response could be arises in nearly every discussion with the administration’s review team and in the various consultation town halls. Currently, crisis management is primarily handled by campus Special Constables (“Constables”), who are appointed by the Province of Ontario and are managed by Toronto Police Services. 

The role of Constables on university campuses is contested. In fact, the University is conducting a review of their role, specifically in managing mental health crises. The review is a response to recommendations in both the Report of the Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health – Final Report and Recommendations (“Student Mental Health Report”) released in December 2019 and the Report of the University of Toronto Anti-Black Racism Task Force released in March 2021. 

The Student Mental Health Report specifically recognized that Constables may not always be needed for crisis response, and that alternatively, crisis management teams should be considered. These teams are composed of crisis counsellors, acting without police involvement. 

Incidents of unnecessary violence at the hands of Constables and regional police on campus are still present in recent collective memory. In 2017, Constables and Toronto Police officers arrested a student on campus for failing to attend court, even though she was authorized not to appear for medical reasons. Their subsequent assault not only caused significant physical injuries to her face and neck, but also left lasting psychological damage. 

In 2019, a student experiencing a mental health crisis at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus was put in restraints, which triggered a panic attack. In this incident, the student was distressed after being told that no mental health nurses were available to attend to her at the Health and Counselling Centre. She reported her ideation to a general nurse, who proceeded to call the Constables. Despite the fact that she was willing to be escorted to a hospital, Constables put her in restraints, triggering a panic attack. 

Considering that police cause so much harm to students, and their mere presence can further exacerbate a student’s condition during a crisis, these incidents force us to examine the purposes Constables serve on our campus. 

In 2016, after reports that Constables failed to intervene in incidents of violence towards transgender, queer, and non-binary students at the “U of T Rally for Free Speech,” then-Assistant Dean, JD Program, Alexis Archibold conducted an investigation into the Constables’ conduct. 

She reported that Constables do not have the power to immediately intervene in a situation, and operate on a “complaints-based process.” She remarked that the Constables’ role was to “maintain the peace in an unbiased manner,” suggesting that they have no duty to the safety of a particular student.  

The Campus Safety Office’s (CSO) handbook, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, says that Constables have the “powers and authority of the [Mental Health Act].” This means that they are allowed to restrain students and to transport them to psychiatric facilities for detention. 

Chapter 9-04 of the CSO handbook governs conduct with respect to “emotionally disturbed persons” and applies to people who “appear to be in a state of crisis” as well as “any person that is mentally disordered.” This conduct is based only on the Constable’s discretion, and whether the Constable has a reasonable belief there is a threat of violence or the person shows “a lack of competence to care for himself or herself.” In the most recent handbook, there is no requirement for the Constable to directly observe the student; instead, they are allowed to act on third-party information. 

In the above definitions, there are several undefined gaps which are causes for concern. First, the definition of “emotionally disturbed persons” suggests that the section can apply to “mentally disordered” people who are not actively in crisis. Second, both the CSO and the UMLAP review team have confirmed that there are no specific guidelines for the assessment of “risk.”

In the UMLAP town hall on October 5, Professor Donald Ainslie, who is leading the administration’s review team, said that any risk assessment policy would come from the CSO. In an email asking about the CSO’s risk assessment policy, Ryan Dow, the Assistant Director at the CSO, said that the CSO “do not have any specific policies or procedures.” Dow further clarified that “when required, constables follow the related sections of the Criminal Code for guidance,” and that safety or protective measures would be implemented on a case by case basis.

Outside the Governing Council Chambers in Simcoe Hall. Credit: Shae Rothery

The handbook also specifies that in such a crisis, at least two Constables should be present. If the Constables are of the opinion the situation may escalate into violence, they must call for a supervisor and the Toronto Police Services. The CSO handbook also suggests restraint as a method of “stabilizing the situation.”

In the absence of guidelines, where guidance is defined by the Criminal Code, it is outrageous to expect students—especially disabled students—to feel safe with the presence of police on campus. Even in situations outside of mental health crises, increased police presence and the use of restraints only exacerbates fear. 

No reform, such as additional training or revised risk assessment policies, will solve this issue. Having any sort of police on our campus creates an atmosphere of “fear, domination and force,” as written in an open letter to Meric Gertler, penned by a coalition of students and professors concerned about the presence of police to Black and Indigenous lives on campus in August 2020. 

Even at the provincial level, experts have called for alternate measures to address instances of mental health crises, after the deaths of Ejaz Choudry, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, D’Andre Campbell, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in the summer of 2020.

Municipally, in summer 2020, the City of Toronto approved a budget for mobile crisis units which would dispatch a mental health crisis worker and police when needed. As of October 2021, this program has been suspended following public outcry, with experts questioning the need for police during these situations. On our own campus, we have the Gerstein Crisis Center, which sends crisis workers to de-escalate incidents, notably without the need for police response.

Law students—even now, before we enter the legal profession—are uniquely situated within the University’s disciplinary processes. Our staff, faculty members, and others in the legal profession are heavily relied upon for both investigations of non-academic offences, and for the Chairs of the Non-Academic Appeals Board. By virtue of our status, knowledge, and participation, it is our responsibility to speak up for members of our community who have expressed the harm police on campus pose.

On June 20, 2020, the University affirmed its solidarity with the Black community and committed “to purposefully work to create inclusive spaces.” Police presence is antithetical to this commitment. “Inclusivity” necessarily includes safety for our disabled and mad-identified Indigenous, Black and/or racialized peers and we must hold the University accountable to that promise. 

Editor’s Note: Alisha Krishna is the outgoing Chair and Treasurer of Students for Barrier-Free Access and a caseworker in the Academic Appeals Division of Downtown Legal Services. 

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