The University of Chicago brands itself as a place where students are valued above all. However, as students, we have seen that even as the University claims to celebrate and support us, it still reduces students to their academic and professional achievements while withholding medical and mental healthcare and criminalizing students who struggle with mental health. The University prides itself on its rigorous academic standards, but refuses to contend with the often-debilitating stress that students experience as a result. At best, the University deals with this issue with an understaffed Student Counseling Center. At worst, the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) is used to “deal” with mental health crises on campus.
An inevitable result of these negligent policies occurred last year in April of 2018, when a UCPD officer shot then-fourth year student Charles Soji Thomas, who was experiencing a manic mental health crisis. Adding to the trauma of this violent, excessive response to a manic episode, the University then pressed charges against Charles, charging him with three felony counts of aggravated assault of an officer and five felony counts of criminal damage to property. Instead of returning to the University to continue his studies and begin the healing process, over the past year and a half, Charles spent time in the hospital recovering from the shooting, was confined to house arrest, and is now incarcerated in Cook County Jail without bail. A member of the University community who required urgent mental healthcare and community support was instead criminalized, shot, and is now living behind bars with both insufficient and inconsistent access to the medication and treatment services that he needs. In response to this incident, the University has been silent, refusing to acknowledge its negligent treatment of students in crisis.
The University’s current mental health resources are both underfunded and insufficient. Students have difficulty accessing counseling services because of long wait times and are often forced to take leaves of absence if they are deemed mentally unstable. In this context, the University’s treatment of Charles is perhaps unsurprising. Indeed, UChicago is guilty of not only incarcerating Charles by pressing charges but also of more fundamentally fostering a toxic culture of stress and competition that isolates students from one another.
UChicago’s active commitment to fostering this culture has only escalated in the past year and a half. In the spring of 2018, the University eliminated part-time status and allowed students to take five classes with no additional financial cost. These new policies encourage students to take more classes, penalize those who take fewer, and, in general, increase what is considered a “normal” class load. To add to this, UChicago recently introduced Latin Honors and changed the Dean’s List qualifications from a GPA cut-off of 3.25 to a percentage system (top 20 percent). These changes will only increase competition and distrust, and disincentivize both collaboration and solidarity among students. Increasing the number of culturally-competent therapists on campus is vital. While UChicago has announced that it will be opening a new wellness center by 2021, simply improving mental health resources without addressing the underlying root causes of student stress is not enough. On a larger level, these institutional policies show that mental health resources will only function as a band-aid so long as the University continues to structurally uphold this toxic culture of stress.
We write as a group of concerned students who refuse to stand idly by in the face of UChicago’s unconscionable treatment of Charles, structural contributions to mental unwellness, and investments in the racist police.
We aim to support Charles and get him out of jail as soon as possible. It is shameful that the University administration, led by President Zimmer, and the State’s Attorney’s office, led by Kim Foxx, are continuing to prosecute this case. By pressing charges and prosecuting this case, Zimmer and Foxx are both further criminalizing and isolating Charles while depriving him of the mental health care he urgently needs. We call on President Zimmer to publicly come out in support of Charles and urge Foxx to drop the charges against Charles so that he can begin to heal from this violent incident.
We recognize that Charles’s situation is not unique, as part of a larger, structural problem in Chicago and beyond, where people of color and people with mental illness are criminalized and divested from, instead of cared for and invested in. Indeed, in May 2019, only a little over a year after the shooting of Charles, 22-year-old Myles Frazier was shot and killed in his home by Chicago police while experiencing a mental health crisis.
We will not wait for change to come from a University that has rarely, if ever, listened to the demands of its marginalized students and community members. We will continue to provide support to Charles, attending his court dates and communicating with him via letters and phone calls to show our support and care. We will continue to support each other, creating space to think critically about what safety and wellness mean in our community, demanding that the mental health reforms at this University be made with student voices at the center, and organizing with community members who contend with UCPD police violence daily.
The treatment of Charles Thomas by both the University and the UCPD is one more example of a widely-known fact: The University’s police force does not keep students or community members safe, but instead criminalizes the most vulnerable among us, allowing the University to push out those who struggle with mental health while claiming our academic achievements as part of its elite success story. As #CareNotCops has advocated since the spring of 2018, we will not be safe until all have access to equitable mental healthcare and until none of us face the threat of undue violence from University police. We will continue to do the hard, yet much-needed work of imagining a world that functions without police forces and instead prioritizes investment in the mental and physical well-being of community members. We will do what the University refuses to do: care for and support the students and community it claims to champion.
If you would like to get involved in our efforts to support Charles, reach out to us through the UChicago United or Students Working Against Prisons (SWAP) Facebook pages and keep an eye out for upcoming events related to #DropTheCharges.
–#CareNotCops, a joint campaign between UChicago United and Students Working Against Prisons