U of T professors, faculty sign open letter calling for written apology on UTM handcuffing

Letter calls for immediate end to handcuffing practice, repeals of mandated leave policy

U of T professors, faculty sign open letter calling for  written apology on UTM handcuffing

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.

Background

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.”

Open letter

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.

Opinion: U of T needs to address student opposition to the UMLAP

Lack of acknowledgement from administration is hurtful and dismissive

Opinion: U of T needs to address student opposition to the UMLAP

On October 24, students stood outside Simcoe Hall in solidarity as a Governing Council meeting took place inside. This was the second time since September that students gathered in response to the university’s continued lack of policy changes regarding mental health issues, both for student inclusiveness in decision-making processes and general disregard of student well-being on campus.

There is a lack of open communication between the student body and Governing Council. The valid concerns of students are not being addressed — and we have had enough.

Time and again, student organizations have tried to create an open dialogue with university administration. Following a year of mental health protests and discussions, student activists released a report titled “Nothing About Us Without Us.” The report is a well-researched and direct statement that highlights mental health resources that need improving, policies that need to be changed, as well as long and short-term recommendations to benefit student wellness.

As discussed at the rally in front of Simcoe Hall, the recommendations outlined in the report have not yet been adequately addressed, and the lack of action from administration has been interpreted as hurtful and dismissive. Students should have a say in the policies that affect them, and if the university continues to exclude students in these decisions it will only worsen the divide between administrators and the student body.

A poignant example of this is the highly contested university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), which allows the administration to place students on a leave from their studies if their mental health is determined to pose a threat to themselves or others. Understandably, this policy was one of the main topics of discussion during the rally.

“Cut the crap, repeal UMLAP,” was the catchiest chant of the gathering.

Protestors were able to communicate with a few students who were attending the meeting inside. According to these students, the council reacted to these chants by saying that the opposition to the UMLAP was not backed with evidence. The university’s ombudsperson also recently doubled down on UMLAP, causing understandable backlash.

The UMLAP works reactively. The administration is shirking its responsibility to provide preventative mental health services and fix ineffective systems. This policy does little for students seeking help. If a student is forced to leave school, being left to fend for themselves can further harm their mental health and intensify suicidal thoughts.

This policy may claim to help students, but, as discussed at the rally, it only makes matters worse. Individuals are potentially less inclined to share their struggles with the university in fear of being placed on a mandated leave.

The UMLAP fails to effectively accommodate various student experiences, and students will continue to voice their concerns on this topic until a change is made.

The decisions made by Governing Council impact each and every person on campus, and the community that students have built around solidarity and genuine care for one another is inspiring and powerful. The university cannot ignore this resistance forever.

Sonia Uppal is a third-year Equity Studies student at St. Michael’s College.

“We care deeply for their well-being”: U of T admin addresses Bahen Centre death at Business Board meeting

Students lambaste board members following protests outside Simcoe Hall

“We care deeply for their well-being”: U of T admin addresses Bahen Centre death at Business Board meeting

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

In response to what they perceive as U of T’s lack of action on mental health following a suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology — the second death to occur in the building in the past year — students passionately argued for accountability and increased mental health services at yesterday’s Business Board meeting.

The latter half of the silent protest held yesterday afternoon to pressure U of T on its perceived lack of mental health support coincided with a meeting of the Business Board, a U of T body that handles financials, public and community relations, and alumni affairs.

The meeting was supposed to be held in the Governing Council Chambers in Simcoe Hall but was moved to the Medical Sciences Building last minute after students began a sit-in protest outside the rooms.

U of T students Lucinda Qu and Kristen Zimmer delivered stinging rebukes of the university’s mental health resources during the meeting.

Following the board’s open-session discussion on regular business, Qu was given permission to read a statement from an online document that she had shared in the Facebook event page for the protest.

She told the board that “the university is ignoring the needs of students in a blatant attempt to take the onus off of its administration for our mental health, safety, and well-being.”

Qu criticized long delays in mental health services, a lack of 24-hour support, unaccountable professors, and “deeply problematic and retraumatizing” counselling as unacceptable given the university’s “recklessly dangerous” competitive environment.

“To the thousands of us that will spend years of our lives here and to the handful of us who will end our lives here, this is disheartening and it must change,” she said.

U of T President Meric Gertler, who was attending his first Business Board meeting of the year, said that the university can and should do more to improve mental health support. He added that the university’s consultations have been in good faith and that significant investments have already been made for mental health support.

“I just want to signal here and now an openness and, indeed, enthusiasm to work with students in good faith and in a very open way to solicit your advice and your ideas on how to do better,” he said.

U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that the university has “made many investments, but that those investments have not yet reached the point where [they are] meeting all the needs.”

Regehr cited the university’s mental health framework committee — responsible for managing the university-mandated leave of absence policy — and its expert panel on the undergraduate educational experience as two existing initiatives that support students.

The controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy was passed last year and allows the university to place students on leave if their mental health poses a risk to themselves or to others, or if it interferes with their studies. The policy drew criticism from the Ontario Human Rights Commission and was heavily protested by student groups.

After Regehr’s statement, Zimmer addressed the board, saying that “a student died this weekend and we can afford to spend a few extra minutes listening to students.” The board secretary granted her permission to speak, but asked her to keep her statement to one minute.

Zimmer gave an impassioned plea for the university to remove the “dangerous” policy, which she said “is clearly not working and clearly not for us.”

“We see this policy, we see it in print, we see it in writing, and we are afraid. The consequences of this fear, the consequences of being silenced is life-threatening,” she said.

In an interview with The Varsity following the meeting, Gertler emphasized that students’ mental health is a priority for the university and said that he wants to continue working on the issues and challenges that students face.

“Student well-being — mental, physical, emotional — is right at the top of the list. This is why we’re here. We are the university for students and about students. So clearly, we care deeply for their well-being.”

Gertler pointed to the lack of provincial and federal funding for creating new mental health supports for students, and that the university has advocated for increased funding for several years but never received sufficient funds.

He also said that there are numerous faculty and staff working to support students, and in response to requests from students for an open forum with university administrators, hopes to ensure “quality input and meaningful dialogue.”

In response to a question about whether the university is in any way culpable for the multiple suicides that have occurred on campus, Gertler said that he couldn’t address that question because the university needed much more detail.

“We know that these are adults we are talking about and we have to provide every opportunity for them to seek the kind of services that they require,” he said.

“But it’s a shared responsibility: families, friends, society more broadly, as well as the individuals involved. It’s part of a much broader conversation, a much broader effort.”


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.

Ontario Human Rights Commission releases new policy on accessible education

Broader definition of disability, policy comes in wake of university-mandated leave of absence approval

Ontario Human Rights Commission releases new policy on accessible education

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released a new Policy on Accessible Education for Students with Disabilities on August 29.

This policy reflects a broader definition of disability, recognizes that education is important to a person’s development, and provides students with up-to-date information about their human rights and responsibilities.

It also reminds schools of their obligation to maintain accessible, inclusive, discrimination-free, and harassment-free spaces, along with recommendations on how to effectively meet legal obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Significance in relation to the UMLAP

The policy’s release comes months after U of T passed its new University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) in June.

The UMLAP allows U of T to put students on a mandatory leave of absence if their mental health affects their ability to complete their schoolwork, or if it poses a risk to themselves or others.

An early version of the policy was criticized strongly by OHRC’s Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane, who sent a letter to the university asking it to delay the policy’s approval.

According to the letter, sent in January, “the Policy falls short of meeting the duty to accommodate under the Code, and as outlined in the OHRC’s Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability.” 

The letter also said “the Policy appears to allow decisions to be made by University administration who do not have any specialized training on human rights or risk assessment.”

After this letter, the university withdrew that version of the UMLAP, but proposed another version in May, which was passed.

What’s in the new OHRC policy?

The new OHRC policy addresses “the evolving legal definition of disability and its implications for education providers.’

It also recognizes that “disability” includes “both present and past conditions,” as well as a subjective component based on the perception of disability.

The new policy also discusses ableism, negative attitudes, stereotypes, and stigma toward students with disabilities.

It states that “providers have a legal obligation under the Code to not discriminate against students with disabilities, and to eliminate discrimination when it happens.”

A major focus of the policy is on the “duty to accommodate,” which was also one of Mandhane’s main criticisms of the UMLAP.

“Under the Code, education providers have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities who are adversely affected by a requirement, rule or standard,” reads the policy.

The OHRC’s letter notes that “the decisions to exclude a student from school due to alleged health and safety risk without sufficient objective evidence… may constitute discrimination.”

It also adds that students with disabilities cannot be judged to be incapable of fulfilling their educational requirements unless proper accommodation has been provided and the capabilities of the students have been assessed.

The new policy also recommends that schools and postsecondary institutions collect quantitative and qualitative data to understand any barriers that may exist, and to identify and address any concerns that may lead to systemic discrimination.