UNCA police and student affairs department address concerns about police involvement in mental health crises


Seth Maile

Meghan Harte Weyant, UNC Asheville’s vice chancellor of student affairs, clarifies the intentions behind an email sent to faculty on Sept. 12.

Hayden Bailey, [email protected], Arts and Features Writer

Meghan Harte Weyant, UNC Asheville’s vice chancellor of student affairs sent out an email Sept. 12, sparking controversy among faculty and staff. 

The email contained information on what to do when presented with a situation involving a student that might pose an immediate threat. 

“Sometimes staff have concerns about a student related threat or concern that should be shared immediately with University Police. Please call (828) 251-6710, or dial 6710 from any on-campus phone. When in doubt, call 911. You may also visit the customer service window located in Weizenblatt Hall, or activate any of the emergency phones located on campus.

As we continue through the semester, the Academic Success Center and Student Affairs stand ready to fully support faculty, staff and students. Please, do not hesitate to reach out at any time,” part of the email said.

Several of Weyant’s colleagues questioned what constitutes an immediate threat, and went on to ask why university police may need to get involved. 

Some said they feel as though university police presence would escalate the situation, and encouraged the use of other avenues when mental health becomes a factor. 

Durant Long, a literature student said he feels as though the focus should be less on strict, corrective measures and rather on rehabilitative ones when it comes to police efforts. 

“I would like to see them as a safety measure at the very most,” he said. “As someone who has intensive experience with mental health threats and police, I feel that is something that must be handled with finesse.” 

Durant said it’s been embroiled into our psyche that police are there for one thing. 

“When an individual undergoing crisis is presented with police or to be honest, any sort of authority figure, it just worsens it. I feel like if they were to become involved, there would need to be extensive training,” he said.

Weyant, with over 18 years of experience in student services, support, success and retention, explains exactly what she meant by the phrase “immediate threat”. 

“My thought was threats to the campus, if someone enters the building with a weapon, pulls out a weapon, an active shooter or other types of scenarios,” she said. “The other situation, one that happens on our campus and we often discuss as an immediate threat, is a student, faculty or staff member who comes to us and says they have a plan to hurt themselves.”

Weyant said she does understand the question of what constitutes an immediate threat, saying the email had a purpose behind it, one meant to acknowledge the distress that starts to set in between weeks four and six of the semester. 

“Someone could be in distress anytime but particularly with the flow of the academic year, I just wanted our faculty and staff to be thinking about that,” she said. 

In Weyant’s email, signs of distress are listed as things like change in academic performance, excessive absences, signs of depression and unusual or exaggerated emotional responses. 

“The great thing about being on a small campus is you see the same people a lot so you know them and you have personal relationships with them. If someone is struggling, someone else on our campus likely notices,” she said. 

Although the email lists campus police as a resource, Weyant said their involvement in situations with distressed students is rare and other listed sources should also be considered.

“We have an amazing dean of students, we have an amazing student success center, we have a housing life and residence staff, health and counseling team. Just a number of folks who are meant to be the first line of support for students,” Weyant said. 

She said her intentions are for university police to not be the first line of help for students in these situations.

“We do get quite a few calls from people who don’t know where to reach out to for help. Sometimes those are parents who are not close by, sometimes those are roommates in the middle of the night who don’t know what to do as a roommate or a friend,” Weyant said. “When someone calls in to the police and reports something, they have to respond.” 

She said the university looks to use all their resources around counseling, mental health and supportive measures in order to help support the person in distress, rather than always reacting to it as a threat requiring the police. 

“My hope would be when we have a distressed student or a mental health situation that doesn’t involve an immediate threat to campus, we’re using every resource we have to help support the person without having to involve the police,” Weyant said. 

She said she works closely with her team, some of those including ,David Weldon, Megan Pugh, Melanie Fox and Daran Dodd, about the way they want to handle and respond to mental health. 

“We have a way we want to respond in a better, more supportive, holistic and just way,” Weyant said. 

As staff change or leave, she said training with mental support and response remains a priority.

She said for example, when they’re responding to a residence hall room, someone from housing and residence life who’s trained in mental health support, response and emergency response accompanies the police.  

“This is exactly the support model we talk about when we hear conversations around defunding the police or community campus policing models and making sure our team is trained to do that,” Weyant said. 

She said the entire email chain brings up a conversation about what the campus community wants from police and how they can fulfill those goals.

“Whatever we want that to look like, we can make it look like. What I see myself doing as the person who can help is implement or scaffold whatever it is we as a community would like to see happen,” Weyant said. 

She said one downside of removing university police would be reliance on the Asheville police department for emergencies. 

“I don’t know that we as a community would want that,” Weyant said. 

She said the idea of how the community expects police to be involved proves to be one the campus needs more conversation about. 

“We’re a small community and we have a shared set of values. I think we have an opportunity to work really closely with our university police to figure out dialogues around where and when we would want the university police to show up,” Weyant said. 

She said her biggest worry would be no conversation coming from her email, saying it presents a real opportunity to build the model we all want to see.

UNCA’s new chief of police, Daran Dodd, holds eight years of experience in campus law enforcement and he said he’s familiar with the campus policing environment. 

“From the university police perspective, our top priority continues to be the safety of everyone at the institution. That includes our students, our employees, our visitors. That’s the reason we’re here, that’s our number one priority,” Dodd said. 

He said what he defines as an immediate threat constitutes something or someone posing an instant harm to others. 

“From a police perspective, it would be an attack or someone with a gun. From a public safety perspective, it could be anything from hazardous materials to a weather-related incident. All of these are something that could be immediate threats,” Dodd said. “When a call comes into our dispatch, our responsibility is to signal someone there to protect life and property and to keep folks from being harmed.”

Dodd said when officers arrive, they try to maintain the situation until someone who is more trained arrives to assist them. 

“We’re here to make sure that everyone’s safe on our campus. However we can do that is what we’re going to do,” he said. 

He said they value one-on-one interaction with students and the opportunity to know almost all the students they deal with. 

“It’s good for us to have that personal connection you won’t get from an outside law enforcement agency,” the police chief said. 

Melanie Fox, co-interim associate vice chancellor of student affairs, said teamwork and coordination between campus police and health and counseling proves most important in ensuring student safety. 

“It’s really a rare occasion when we have to get campus police involved in those types of situations. It’s only in circumstances where we feel the student might be a threat to themselves or other people,” she said. 

Fox said campus police do not get involved from a dictatorial or authoritative viewpoint. 

“It’s more that they are the first responders who are trained to navigate situations where students might be in danger. We never want there to be a situation where a campus police officer is navigating it by themselves,” she said. 

Fox said they want other people around and involved because of the understanding that there are populations and individual students who have been in situations involving negative relationships with police. 

“We want to honor their experiences by making sure we have other people in place to support them but also have a positive experience with our university police,” she said. “We empathize with those people who have histories where experiences with police were problematic.” 

Fox said they want to achieve more understanding across campus when it comes to how they handle those situations and for them to hear ideas from the university community.

She said some of the most life-changing experiences are incidents where students are in an emergency.

“We know it’s critical how these situations are handled. We know it can change whether a student feels like they should stay or leave the institution. We value their being here and we want to do everything in our power to make this a safe place for them. It’s critical that we all work together and collaborate in ways that best enhance those experiences for students,” Fox said.

In terms of the event that occurred in Highsmith on Sept. 20, not much is being said. However, it now presents itself relative to this topic. Fox said they are hesitant to give any insight except that they are taking it very seriously and are looking into the matter as carefully and thoroughly as they possibly can. 

“Right now we’re really investigating everything that happened, so we don’t have any statements at this time because we really want to get the most valid and accurate information before providing that to others,” Fox said.