Student Sues American University over Unlawful Use of Force, Seizure and Institutionalization by University Police Motivated by Racism and Ableism

September 25, 2020

Gregg Kelley, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 202-319-1070

AU officers entered student’s apartment without notice and subjected her to hours of intimidation before forcibly removing her and committing her to psychiatric facility for six days

Washington, D.C. – Today, Gianna Wheeler, a student at American University, filed suit against the university, the dean of students, and several American University and Metropolitan Police Department officers for unlawfully entering her apartment determined to commit her to a psychiatric unit against her will. These officers took these actions because of Ms. Wheeler’s race and perceived mental health status, not because of any actual threat that she posed.

On September 26, 2019, Ms. Wheeler was studying in her locked studio apartment when seven officers stormed Ms. Wheeler’s apartment, entered without consent, and falsely accused her of assaulting a dean and another student. During this ordeal, Ms. Wheeler remained calm and steadfastly insisted that she did not assault anyone and that it was her right not to give in to their demands despite feeling terrorized by the show of force. The officers barricaded Ms. Wheeler in her apartment for over three hours.

The officers then handcuffed Ms. Wheeler and forcibly carried her out of her apartment kicking and screaming. This happened in full view of students and non-students, many of whom filmed the incident and shared widely to the extreme embarrassment of Ms. Wheeler. Officers transported her to a hospital and involuntarily committed her, and she was held for six days.

After her release, the university would not allow her to return to campus for a month, and placed her on interim suspension for the alleged assault, for which she has since been cleared of all charges.

“As a Black woman with a disability in America who was a prior victim of police brutality, I was afraid for my safety when AUPD and MPD stormed into and dragged me out of my apartment on September 26, 2019. The events of that evening and the subsequent treatment that I have been subjected to by the AU community have traumatized me and impacted my academics, social life, and plans for after college. I sincerely hope American University reviews its policies to ensure other students like me are not treated in this way in the future. This situation was completely unacceptable and avoidable if the proper procedures were in place,” said Gianna Wheeler.

Ms. Wheeler is represented by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Defendants are American University (“AU”); AU Dean of Students Jeffrey Brown; officers Kevin Barrett, Michael Vena, Joseph Joyner, and Doe 1 of the American University Police Department; and DC Metro Police Department officers Stephen Kinzer, Deborah Smith, and Richard David.

“Ms. Wheeler was a 21 year-old woman who weighed 114 pounds, yet seven police officers showed up and spent hours physically detaining her against her will. The intimidation of Black people by law enforcement has traumatic, and deadly, consequences that we have seen play out across the country. The fact that AU cleared her of all charges raises the question of why this Black student with disabilities was targeted, and why her treatment was so severe,” states Kaitlin Banner, Deputy Legal Director for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

You can view a copy of the complaint here.


The Eagle

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ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE: Founded in 1968, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression. For more information, please visit or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.

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