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Editorial & Opinion

Behind the Van Wickle Gates: Negligence and Abuse



I was outnumbered by several EMTs and Department of Public Safety officers and forcibly escorted to the ambulance at Faunce Arch. I tried to free myself, but was grabbed and handled so roughly I was bruised on my arms. Because of EMS’s determination that my resistance to being hospitalized was dangerous, I was tranquilized, forced onto the ground, stepped on, and handcuffed before being led away. I still have deep scars on my legs from the lacerations made by EMTs while trying to handle and tranquilize me.

It was Brown University’s annual fall event, A Night On College Hill (ANOCH), and Ruth Simmons Quad was filled with dancing undergraduates, eager to be back on campus. A live band took the stage as students rotated between grabbing snacks, taking pictures at the photobooth, and dancing to the music. Few noticed the flashing red and blue lights closeby, which seamlessly blended in with the colorful lights underneath the tent. While most students were enjoying ANOCH, Sara Doe was being forcefully strapped to a gurney and later, sedated.

Doe, a first-semester senior, was enjoying the start of her last year at Brown, when a bystander misinformed Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) staffing ANOCH that Doe had hit her head after falling down. An EMT insisted that Doe should be transported despite Doe’s repeated assertion that she did not hit her head, and did not want to go to the hospital. She went into a restroom to remove herself from the stressful situation but the male EMT followed her in. Doe continued to refuse transport, but allowed the EMT to conduct a routine physical examination in order to deescalate the situation. Yet, more officers arrived at the scene.

“I was outnumbered by several EMTs and Department of Public Safety officers and forcibly escorted to the ambulance at Faunce Arch. I tried to free myself, but was grabbed and handled so roughly I was bruised on my arms. Because of EMS’s determination that my resistance to being hospitalized was dangerous, I was tranquilized, forced onto the ground, stepped on, and handcuffed before being led away. I still have deep scars on my legs from the lacerations made by EMTs while trying to handle and tranquilize me.”

During this physical confrontation, Sara Doe admits to biting an EMT once.

“I think panic took over,” Doe explains to us, “I had just been physically hurt and verbally harassed by EMTs and I was terrified.”

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Doe has sustained major trauma previous to this incident which significantly factors into her response. Substantial neuropsychological research documents the profound impact of trauma on the brain and body. Specifically, previous trauma can override “typical” responses to physical touch, especially those that come as a surprise or without consent. When trauma survivors are triggered, as in the case of Sara Doe, the psychological response is instinctive, and the “survival brain” takes over the “rational brain” while adrenaline floods the body. Had EMS engaged in harm reduction practices the outcome may have been different. Instead, Sara Doe was forcibly transported and later, suspended from Brown. She is now being expected to finish her last semester without receiving her diploma and re-enroll in the fall so that the suspension can take effect. Furthermore, Doe has been left with a bill for “restitution” that she must pay to the EMT who assaulted her while also dealing with a felony charge.

Colleges nationwide have seen a call for increased mental health education and policy reform on college campuses. America’s most prestigious universities have long neglected their mentally ill students, from student testimonials of forced institutionalization at Yale University (link) to the recent lawsuit against Stanford University’s discriminatory leave of absence policies (link). Much like its peer institutions, Brown University’s mental health policies leave much to be desired, especially when it comes to involuntary transport. Sara Doe’s seemingly extreme case is not an isolated incident, and reflects a longstanding pattern of EMS and DPS abuse. Dozens of mentally ill and disabled students experience forced restraint, sedation, and physical violence at the hands of Brown’s emergency services, due to lack of training.

“It was one of the most traumatizing and dehumanizing experiences of my life.”

Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, a national activist and organizer for mental health reform, started the non-profit Project LETS in high school in response to their friend dying by suicide. Upon matriculating, Kaufman-Mthimkhulu created a Project LETS college chapter and worked with hundreds of students to implement necessary policy changes. In 2017, their senior year, Kaufman-Mthimkhulu became one of many students who would be forcibly transported and hospitalized during their time at Brown.

“My aunt, who I was extremely close with, had just passed away unexpectedly and I had returned to campus after one week with extremely limited support from faculty. I was experiencing what individuals would describe as an extended psychotic episode. A neighbor heard me screaming and called DPS… but I was not self-harming, I was not talking about suicide, and further, I was not directly asked about any of this. All of a sudden, my room was taken over by DPS officers and EMTs.”

The EMTs present ignored Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, operating under the assumption that because they were experiencing psychosis, they couldn’t understand what was happening. Kaufman-Mthimkhulu remembers being looked at with fear and disgust. They also remember feeling like they were in danger.

“I recall men swarming me and grabbing at me from all angles. I felt like I was in a video game, like Pac-Man, trying to escape the danger. As a survivor of violence who lives with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, my response was to fight back. I was forcibly restrained, had a gag/spit mask placed over my mouth to prevent me from biting, and experienced no communication from EMTs nor any de-escalation tactics. My consent and bodily autonomy was violently disregarded.”

After a violent hold in the hospital, where Kaufman-Mthimkhulu was forcibly medicated through injections and forced to undress and urinate in front of male guards, they returned to campus and was met with no follow-up care.

Cailin Frankland was forcefully transported and hospitalized her sophomore year, also in 2017. A week after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attempting a new treatment plan, Frankland was hit with a breakup, her mother being diagnosed with arthritis, and her grandfather attempting suicide.

“My PTSD symptoms were worsening and I was experiencing almost constant suicidal ideation, so I turned to my roommates for help. One of them decided to call EMS… when they arrived, they asked me about my suicidality, treating me as a legal liability rather than a patient in need of help.”

Even though she had no intent nor means to harm herself, Frankland was physically restrained, strapped down to a gurney and transported to Rhode Island Hospital, where she was forced to change into a paper uniform in front of a male guard and taken to the psychiatric ward.

“The lights stayed on all night and the sounds of patients yelling out and getting forcibly sedated kept me awake for most of the time there. The hospital staff took my blood and measured my vitals without my consent, sometimes even prodding me with needles to wake me up. Several of the guards sexually harassed me, which was particularly triggering for me as a survivor getting treatment for PTSD – one even told me that he “liked his bitches crazy.” After nineteen hours, the hospital finally let me leave and my roommates took me home.”

When Frankland returned to campus, she received one email from a Support Services Dean and attenended a singular meeting. After that, there was no outreach nor support offered by the University. Nor was she able to share any concerns with EMS about her treatment. She remained enrolled, but suffered from intense trauma, having nightmares and panic attacks, causing her to stop eating.

In 2019, an anonymous individual called DPS on Gabriela (pseudonym for safety purposes) for a “wellness check” who had expressed feelings of sadness online. Because Gabriela lived off-campus, DPS deferred to the Providence Police Department, who sent 6 officers to Gabriela’s house without notice. Without a warrant or justification, Providence Police forcibly took Gabriela to Miriam Hospital, despite their Peer Mental Health Advocate and multiple friends affirming that they did not need to be transported and demanding their release. Upon arriving at Miriam Hospital, Gabriela was placed into an involuntary hold with 2 security guards keeping watch; once they returned to Brown’s campus, they received no support.

Gabriela now knows who called DPS on them and is very distrustful of utilizing support services. After having lost their rights and agency after being transported and hospitalized, they hesitate to ever call 911 or seek emergency aid at hospitals.

“My agency as a disabled person is not a privilege that everyone else gets except me. People do not get to determine themselves as my proactive decision makers.”

Gabriela survived, but not everyone does when police become involved; 1 in 4 fatal police shootings involve individuals with untreated mental illness. Despite this, universities nationwide refuse to allocate funds to proper training for students and continue to advocate for calling armed campus officers in the face of a mental health crisis. This can have terrible consequences. On April 3rd, 2018, a University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) officer “shot and gravely wounded a University of Chicago student, following reports that the student allegedly broke car and apartment windows with a metal pipe in what the student’s friend described as a “manic episode.”.

Continuing to employ police and untrained emergency responders will only serve to further the harm that disabled students face in higher education.

Having students as emergency responders could be a positive part of a university’s fabric of care, but only if students are properly trained. Unfortunately, this is not the case at Brown University, where mental health training is optional for EMTs. This lack of training leads to extremely harmful situations and, as seen in Sara Doe’s case, the University chooses to criminalize the mentally ill student instead of providing avenues of growth for the care providers. We seek trauma-informed care for our students, who have been told that they are dispensable, that their mental illness is a personal failure instead of targeting the systemic lack of training and care.

After all, disabled students do not exist to meet diversity quotas in higher education. Universities must and can do better to protect us.

This op-ed was written as part of a larger campaign to reverse Sara Doe’s suspension at Brown University. To get involved in the campaign, follow @Justice4SaraDoe on Twitter and Instagram, and Justice 4 Sara Doe on Facebook.

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