Content warning: substance abuse, opioids, self-harm, overdose
On Wednesday, Oct. 7, Residence Life staff informed Aziz Ouedraogo that she had been removed from her position as a House Adviser (HA) due to an incident in which Ouedraogo overdosed in her dorm room in Chittick earlier that week. In the weeks since her overdose and subsequent firing, Ouedraogo did not feel supported by Reed administrators and approached the Quest with her story. Ouedraogo said that her goals in speaking to the Quest are not to be rehired as an HA. Instead, she says she hopes her experience will offer an example of how the Reed administration is failing to support students, especially those with marginalized identities.
Early in the morning of Monday, Oct. 5, Ouedraogo overdosed on opioids, according to the Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) response letter written by Vice President for Student Life Karnell McConnell-Black and Interim Dean of Students Cindy Anderson. Later that week, Ouedraogo’s immediate supervisor, Area Coordinator Miranda James, notified Ouedraogo that she had been fired.
Prior to Ouedraogo’s firing, on Oct. 2, she was placed on probation as an HA for not enforcing the college’s public health safety measures regarding COVID-19. In the termination letter written to Ouedraogo on Oct. 7, Residence Life staff wrote, “There has been a huge impact on the Chittick community in particular as a result of not complying with college policy. After extensive deliberation with the Residence Life team, we are terminating your House Adviser position (effective October 7, 2020).”
Although she told McConnell-Black and Anderson in a Zoom meeting on Oct. 17 that her residents in Chittick were saddened to lose her as an HA because of the relationships she had established in her community, she acknowledges that her overdose impacted them. However, Ouedraogo believes that the decision to terminate her contract as an HA was made primarily by McConnell-Black and Anderson, both of whom are relatively new to Reed and come from employment backgrounds at larger universities.
Senior Pax Lloyd-Burchett, a close friend of Ouedraogo who administered naloxone to her on the morning of Oct. 5, expressed a similar concern. “I worry that folks are taking a big school approach to a small school problem,” he commented. “Why, in this moment — an extremely vulnerable moment for an extremely marginalized student — the college went with the option that was only effectively rationalized to me as more or less ‘because we can’ is the reason I am the most concerned.”
Ouedraogo suffers from chemical addiction, a condition which disproportionately affects Black trans women like herself. Ouedraogo’s overdose on Oct. 5 was the second of three overdoses in one week. Ouedraogo said that both Residence Life staff and other Reed administrators have known about her struggles with addiction and mental health for months.
In February, Ouedraogo received medical amnesty for an incident in which another HA notified the on-call Area Coordinator Déja Fitzgerald that Ouedraogo had been self-harming while under the influence of benzodiazepines. As a result of this incident, the administration required Ouedraogo to attend two counseling appointments, which she fulfilled with her existing therapist. According to Ouedraogo, the administration provided no additional support.
Ouedraogo said, “If the institution had acted sooner, maybe I wouldn’t have overdosed three times and been fired.”
Lloyd-Burchett expressed his frustration with the way the administration responded to Ouedraogo’s overdose. “The problem with the administration is that although some individual members reached out, they did so in a way that was deeply individualistic,” he said. “It seemed like everyone offering support was doing so of their own volition, and not as some larger interconnected network. What surprised me the most was the real lack of personal investment from the administration, particularly those above the associate dean level.”
According to Ouedraogo, on Tuesday, Oct. 6, one day after her overdose and while her body was still processing the naloxone in her system, McConnell-Black called a meeting between himself, Anderson, and Ouedraogo. In this meeting, Ouedraogo described McConnell-Black’s attitude as “aggressive.” McConnell-Black implied that he needed to make an example of Ouedraogo and did not ask after her well-being, she said.
On Oct. 17, Ouedraogo met again with McConnell-Black and Anderson to discuss the incident and the administration’s disciplinary response. McConnell-Black and Anderson informed Ouedraogo that she had received a Level III AOD violation because she had received medical amnesty previously.
The language of the medical amnesty policy allows the Vice President for Student Life and/or the Interim Dean of Students to make a discretionary decision about whether or not a student receives medical amnesty. Anderson told the Quest, “According to the Medical Amnesty clause of the AOD Policy, should a student who invokes the Medical Amnesty Policy experience a subsequent AOD-related medical emergency, s/he [sic] may be excluded from the Medical Amnesty Policy and therefore subject to disciplinary action.” This means that having invoked the medical amnesty policy once can make a student ineligible for medical amnesty in subsequent situations, which is what happened here. Had Ouedraogo never received medical amnesty in the past, she would have been granted amnesty for her overdose.
In the Oct. 19 AOD letter summarizing this meeting, McConnell-Black and Anderson discussed possible next steps, including connecting Ouedraogo to Health and Counseling Center (HCC) Director of Counseling Johanna Workman to discuss Ouedraogo’s interest in “pursuing work (for compensation) to inform and expand support for Trans BIPOC students.” McConnell-Black and Anderson also listed available campus resources, including the HCC and Disability and Accessibility Resources.
At the end of the letter, McConnell-Black and Anderson wrote, “Aziz, we are very concerned about your substance abuse and strongly encourage you to fully comply with the medical advice from your addiction specialist and to consider decisions to promote your health and well-being such as a Medical Leave of Absence. This may be the best time to invest in your own health. Thank you for your candor, time and willingness to engage with us. We are here to support you.”
Ouedraogo says that no member of the administration has reached out to her since the Oct. 17 meeting. Ouedraogo commented, “Honestly, they didn’t communicate with me very well at all.” Lloyd-Burchett shares this sentiment. “Frankly, the administration hasn’t actually done any measurable thing to support her,” he said.
In addition to being Black and trans, Ouedraogo is of low socioeconomic status, and she said that losing the HA position made her “incredibly financially insecure.” After Ouedraogo was fired, Anderson, McConnell-Black, and Assistant Dean of Students for Student Support Britt Hoover promised to address her financial instability. In the email he wrote on Oct. 9, McConnell-Black wrote, “I have a commitment to make sure you graduate and that you do not experience housing or food insecurities during your time at Reed.”
Ouedraogo said she was told that she would still be able to graduate without any debt. “They misled me, […] and they’re making me take out loans,” Ouedraogo said. Ouedraogo has since moved into a single Birchwood apartment. According to Ouedraogo, the administration expressed no concern for her living in an apartment on her own despite her comorbid addiction and depression.
Lloyd-Burchett has also not received the support that he expected from the administration. “At this time the only support I received from anyone at the VP/Dean level was the offer for a half hour meeting two weeks after the incident in question,” he said. He also believes that Ouedraogo’s overdose is emblematic of larger institutional problems, adding, “I worry that administrators […] do not see this as a systematic problem.”
As an example of the larger issues at play, Lloyd-Burchett told the Quest that although he is confident he made the right decision to call the CSOs after administering naloxone to Ouedraogo, if he had known that the school would respond by firing her, he would be faced with a more difficult choice between Ouedraogo’s physical well-being and her financial security. Putting students in this position, in which the AOD policy may deter students from calling for help, is what the medical amnesty policy is intended to prevent.
In regard to the services available to Ouedraogo, Lloyd-Burchett expressed his concern about the current role of the HCC. In both February and October, the administration responded to Ouedraogo’s drug abuse by referring her to the HCC, which in turn referred her to the resources to which she already had access. “The HCC becoming a referral center is not a cosmetic change, but apparently a referendum on how we support young people in the raw and visceral process of becoming themselves,” he said.
Ouedraogo believes she was treated differently as someone with a history of policy violations and as a Black trans woman. She said that throughout her experiences, “the common thread is mistreatment and negligence of the institution.” Lloyd-Burchett added, “I am hoping that the way that Aziz was treated in this situation was an oversight, or a fumbling in a transition to a new era of student services at Reed. I worry that it signals a transition to a more procedural model of student support that doesn’t have to rationalize its actions to the student body.”
Both Hoover and Assistant Dean for Institutional Diversity Jessika Chi told the Quest that although they were not involved in the decision regarding Ouedraogo’s employment, they have been providing support to Ouedraogo.
McConnell-Black did not respond to the Quest’s request for comment. Citing confidentiality concerns and Residence Life policy, Director of Residential Education Julia Nicholson, and Associate Dean of Students for Student & Campus Life Amy Schuckman declined to comment.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please call the Reed Counseling Hotline at 866-432-1224, the Multnomah County Crisis Line at 503-988-4888, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. If you or someone you know is having a medical emergency or an immediate mental health issue, contact 911 and Community Safety at 503-788-6666.