American University Responds to Backlash

The university's handling of the physical removal of an African American student from her apartment prompted student protests and public criticism after a disturbing video of the event went viral.

November 6, 2019
 
Dan Papscun / The Eagle

American University emailed a lengthy statement to the campus Tuesday responding to recent media coverage and public criticism over the forced removal of an African-American student from her university-managed apartment.

The incident, which occurred in late September, was not widely publicized until a video of the student's removal by six university police officers went viral on social media. Students staged a protest on campus last week over the removal and suspension of Gianna Wheeler. The protest was covered by various news outlets to whom the university provided very little information about why the visibly upset studentwas carried out of her apartment by the arms and legs by the police officers.

Last week, a university spokesperson issued a written statement that said only that university police went to the apartment and that there was more about what happened than was apparent in the video. But Wheeler's friends said the police went to her apartment for what was supposed to be a wellness check.    

The new email sent out Tuesday reiterated the university's earlier position that the video was not the entire story, and that AU is unable to comment on certain aspects of the incident due to privacy laws. The statement also provided broader but still limited context for the university's actions -- and also defended them.     

"A recent emergency response involving a student at the off-campus Frequency Apartments leased by American University was captured in a 30-second video and posted to social media," the email said. "The emergency response in this situation involved hours of intervention and de-escalation engagements before what was seen on the video. Concerns about the video and a subsequent campus protest have led to questions from our community and beyond about American University’s commitment to Black students and the role and procedures of the AU Police Department (AUPD) in responding to emergencies or crisis situations."

The email detailed standard campus police and safety policies and procedures, and provided assurances that they were followed. The statement also restated the university's commitment to ensuring that students of color feel welcomed and safe on campus.  

"We take the concerns about these complicated situations seriously, especially given our national climate and the lived experiences of communities of color and other marginalized communities across this country," the statement continued. "It is understandable that, absent critical details not available in a short video, the public and media representation of these events can be disturbing. First and foremost, we want to clearly state that American University remains deeply committed to the dignity, privacy and well-being of our students, which are hallmarks of our inclusive excellence journey. We also want to discuss how American University addresses emergency situations."

The email was signed by Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life, and Doug Kudravetz, a vice president who oversees university police and is also in charge of risk management, among other responsibilities. 

"Times like these challenge us and sow seeds of doubt and frustration," the statement concluded. "However, we cannot and will not be diverted from our mission to build a community that is rooted in inclusive excellence and one in which students of all backgrounds can be safe and thrive as they pursue their education.  We have made some progress and we know we have much more work to do to ensure members of our community feel a sense of belonging and safety. In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue engaging members of the community, including student leaders, with a renewed commitment to enhance understanding of our safety and wellness approaches and protocols."

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