More colleges are hiring crisis response teams for mental health emergencies

WWhen a 911 call comes in to Oregon State University’s Department of Public Safety, dispatchers don’t automatically send the police. Instead, they could send members of the university’s new crisis response team — professionals trained to calm and support those in distress — in place of or alongside law enforcement officers.

Oregon State is the latest of several large universities to create crisis response teams to rethink campus security and provide more appropriate responses for students in some nonviolent emergencies, such as mental health or addiction crises.

Campus officials say the program, called OSU Assist, recognizes that many students from marginalized communities have negative experiences with police that can be exacerbated when officers show up. In some situations, unarmed crisis responders may be better equipped to provide the assistance students need.

OSU’s support team consists of four crisis responders, including mental health providers, peer support specialists and community health workers.

Their goal is to defuse tensions and prevent violence in sensitive situations and connect students to resources, said Aubrie Piper, director of student welfare services and associate dean of students at Oregon State. Piper leads OSU’s relief staff.

“If you think about how crisis response has evolved over the years, sometimes it’s really depended on maybe one entity — like in this case, law enforcement,” says Piper. “I would argue that adding this team will take the burden off law enforcement to support us on specific calls.”

A growing phenomenon

The Oregon State Police force is relatively new, established in 2021 after the state police department ended campus patrols, citing staffing shortages. Plans for a campus police force, announced in 2019, met with immediate backlash, with activists calling for the university’s force to be disarmed and defunded.

The controversial case was front and center in activists’ minds. A fourth-year student was recently arrested on charges of interfering with a police officer and resisting arrest after he was stopped on campus for allegedly riding his bike on the wrong side of the street. Some members of the community argued that the student, Genesis Hansen, was racially profiled and that the officers had used excessive force. The charges were later dropped.

At the same time, a national movement to kick police off campus was growing.

2020 brought a surge of activism to respond to the use of campus police officers mental health situations. Activists said the armed police response endangered the lives of students and community members and required unarmed mental health professionals to replace police officers in responding to crises. They cited the shootings of Georgia Tech student Scout Schultz, who was killed by campus police after holding a knife and telling officers to “shoot me” while reportedly having a mental breakdown., and Charles Soji Thomas, a University of Chicago student who charged an officer with a metal stake during a mental health crisis. Thomas recovered from his injuries.

In the past two years, several crisis response efforts have been implemented on campuses: At Georgia Tech, campus police officers are now required to complete 40 hours of crisis intervention team training. California State University Long Beach is placement of mental health counselors in your police department. The University of Texas at Austin, University of Florida, Johns Hopkins Universityand others connect counselors with police officers to respond to mental health situations.

Oregon State Police Superintendent and Vice President for Safety Shanon Anderson said there are many situations where both police officers and emergency responders may be needed.

For example: A student’s bike is stolen and he has an emotional reaction.

“I myself have taken a report from a student whose bike was stolen,” Anderson said. “And when they start talking to me, I find out that their parents spent a lot of money on a bicycle, it’s their only means of transportation, they think about this loss for their parents… That can be a crisis in itself.”

He said that a situation like this is a great time to have resources other than me as a police chief doing a police report.

OSU Emergency Response Team members will only respond to calls if there is no threat of violence, no weapons, or no medical emergency. Services are currently available Wednesday through Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., but officials say they will extend the hours based on student feedback. Currently, counselors only answer campus calls.

Collaboration is the key

There is little research on the effectiveness of crisis response teams on college campuses, although some limited research suggests that they may help reduce costs and psychiatric hospitalizations. A 2000 study of 131 911 calls in DeKalb County, Ga., found that 55 percent of emergencies handled by a mobile crisis team did not lead to a hospital, compared with 28 percent by police officers. The study also found that the average cost per incident was 23 percent lower when it was handled by a crisis team. The study found no significant difference in arrest rates between crisis responders and those served by police officers.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Chief Kristen Roman said her institution now has a co-responder model in which mental health professionals join police on calls from students in crisis. An important aspect of Wisconsin’s approach is cooperation between crisis workers and police, he said. The crisis team has attended the de-escalation training of the police station and traveled along.

“The best practice is to build that relationship so that everyone understands what their role is,” Roman said. “And that relationship is established before any crisis occurs, because a crisis situation is not the time to try to clear things up and develop a relationship that should already be established.”

But Roman, who also serves as board director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said it’s important not to see emergency responders as suitable replacements for police officers.

“Instead of taking police out of conversations about how best to respond, I think we need to be part of this comprehensive approach to create an understanding that is shared among all stakeholders,” Roman said. “Because there will come a time and a place where the police will be needed.”

Piper, head of OSU Assist, said her team learned from crisis response teams in cities including FAILURE in Eugene and Portland Street Answer.

Student feedback to OSU Assist has been generally positive, Piper said, and her team is working to spread awareness and build confidence in the program by holding information sessions, holding focus groups and participating in student-government meetings and resident-advisor trainings.

“We plan to do a lot of work with the campus community as the program continues, not only to make sure people are aware of the resource, but also to get ongoing feedback on what’s working and what we can improve,” he said. .

Amanda White, a post-baccalaureate student and student government accessibility and wellness coordinator at Oregon State, is interested in how Oregon State communicates with students about OSU Assist and other resources. White said Oregon State recently partnered with the company to offer students 24/7 mental health care online.

“That’s one of the big things I really want to focus on in my role,” White said, “is the coordination part of what’s already there.”

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