Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.
An open letter drafted by Beverly Bain, a lecturer at the Women & Gender Studies Institute at UTM, and Vannina Sztainbok, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, was sent to multiple university administrators on Tuesday. The letter, which was signed by over 130 professors, faculty members, and students, calls on the university to issue a written apology to Natalia Espinosa, the UTM student who was handcuffed by campus police earlier this semester.
On October 2, Espinosa, a third-year student, sought help at the Health & Counselling Centre (HCC) for suicidal ideation. She was accompanied by her friend and fellow U of T student, Anita Mozaffari, who had been the one to urge Espinosa to seek support. After drafting a safety plan with a nurse — which involved Espinosa staying the night with Mozaffari — the nurse informed Espinosa that, per U of T protocol, campus police would have to speak with her for 10–15 minutes before she could leave.
During her talk with two campus police constables, Espinosa revealed that she had previously intended to die by suicide and that a specific location was involved in her plan. The officers then told her that they would have to transport her to a hospital because her plan included a real location.
Although Espinosa was willing to go to a hospital with them, the two officers maintained that they needed to handcuff her, which caused Espinosa to suffer a number of panic attacks in the ensuing hours.
When this incident initially came to light, a number of U of T campus groups released statements condemning the actions of campus police and called on the university to amend its policies. Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh also fielded a number of questions on the matter during a University Affairs Board meeting on November 13.
A university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Varsity that although U of T’s existing policies are in line with local law enforcement, “U of T is reviewing its police practices in this respect.”
The document, entitled, “Open Letter Calling For End To Handcuffing Of Students,” amassed over 130 signatures from U of T community members in the five days between November 21, when the letter began circulating, and November 26. At that time, it was sent to U of T President Meric Gertler, Acting Vice-President and Principal at UTM Ian Orchard, and Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean of UTM Amrita Daniere.
The open letter, which was created and mainly signed by U of T professors and faculty members, cites their concerns with referring their students to U of T’s mental health services in light of this incident.
The letter reads: “As faculty and staff, we are trained to refer students to services, including the HCCs. Now, we have to seriously consider whether such a referral could lead to further harm. This leaves us, but more importantly students, bereft of options.”
The main demands include a written apology for Espinosa and compensation sent to her “for the trauma she experienced.” A number of policy changes were also proposed, such as excluding campus police from mental health situations by halting the practice of arresting and handcuffing students — instead, using other means to transport students to hospitals.
It also suggested ending the practice of encouraging invigilators to involve law enforcement when dealing with “difficult” students, repealing the university-mandated leave of absence policy, and hiring mental health professionals who are experienced in providing support to marginalized people. Finally, the authors suggested including student consultation throughout the reform process.
The authors of this letter are concerned with how issues of mental health are particularly pressing for those at an ‘intersection.’ They note that “Black students and students of colour who are female on all three of our campuses” are especially vulnerable in seeking mental health support.
When asked about the open letter, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity, stating “We have received the letter and will respond directly to the faculty members who have raised concerns.”
In conversation with Beverly Bain
Bain, one of the principal authors of the open letter, sat down with The Varsity to talk about her motivations behind advocating for Espinosa and for better mental health support at U of T.
Mozaffari, Espinosa’s friend who accompanied her that day to the HCC, is one of Bain’s students. When the handcuffing incident initially happened, both went to her for guidance. Since then, as this event has become more well-known, a number of other students have talked to Bain about experiences similar to Espinosa’s.
“This is not an isolated event,” said Bain, claiming that she is aware of five other similar incidents, with three students having already spoken to her about their experience.
She disagrees with the rationale behind U of T’s policy to handcuff students transported to hospitals. Mark Overton, Dean of Student Affairs at UTM, explained to The Varsity that these measures are in place to protect the safety of all those involved, both the student and the officer.
“If anything, [handcuffing students] heightens their anxiety, because it criminalizes them,” Bain said. She went on to add that “these students are not violent, there’s nothing to de-escalate. What creates escalation is putting them in handcuffs because then they panic and then they get upset.”
Bain hopes to see trained mental health professionals dealing with these issues, rather than campus police.
“In the case of [Espinosa], and all of the other cases, these students said to me that the campus police, they were really cruel. They were not at all supportive, they were not kind.”
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.
Warning signs of suicide include:
Talking about wanting to die
Looking for a way to kill oneself
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
Talking about being a burden to others
Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or feeling isolated
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.