Winter 2022 — When a parent is worried about a student who hasn’t been heard from in a week, or a student experiences a mental health crisis and a roommate calls 911, or when the death of a loved one needs to be communicated, it’s been role of law enforcement to make welfare checks, respond and deliver difficult news.
Beginning this fall, non-emergency calls like these will receive a different response at Oregon State University’s Corvallis campus.
In answer to requests for alternative ways of supporting students that don’t require the presence of law enforcement, an enhanced approach to crisis response is being developed called OSU Assist. A multidisciplinary team is bringing together new resources and existing services, explains Ian Kellems, executive director of Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS). “We want to provide the right resource at the right time,” Kellems says.
Historical and recent events, including the murder of George Floyd in 2020, have renewed conversations about how safety can mean different things to different people. “Often, those who hold marginalized identities experience law enforcement negatively due to past encounters or distressing associations with police violence,” Kellems says. “OSU Assist will better support students facing challenges or crises with the understanding that it is not necessary for every response to a crisis be law enforcement.”
The team of crisis response professionals will enhance safety and security by collaborating with university and community partners to coordinate crisis prevention, mental health, public safety and other support services. “Resources to support students have existed on campus for a long time,” Kellems says. “We’re not starting from zero.”
Recognizing that 80% of students live off campus, OSU Assist will rely on partner agencies in the local community surrounding OSU, as well as national and international groups and organizations. “We are very much in alignment with changes to improve crisis response on a local, statewide, national and international level,” says Kevin Dougherty, associate vice provost and dean of students. “OSU Assist cannot operate by itself.”
The OSU Assist Advisory Committee, led by Dougherty with representatives from the Division of Student Affairs (including CAPS and Diversity & Cultural Engagement) and the OSU Police Department, among others, is guiding development and implementation. Some influential crisis response models the advisory group has considered are Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets (CAHOOTS), a Eugene program nationally known for providing assistance and responding to behavioral health issues, and Portland Street Response, a team that includes mental health and community health workers. Some of the principles from these groups apply to OSU Assist, but the program will be unique to the Corvallis campus and community.
“This is an opportunity for cultural transformation, in how we reshape our work in support of creating equitable student success outcomes,” Dougherty says. “OSU Assist will contribute to a systemic transformation of systems and structures that have historically produced inequitable outcomes.”