The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into one university’s crackdown on what people are thinking.
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is determining whether the practices at Northern Michigan University that have included threats of expulsion for students who are “suspected of self-destructive thoughts” result in illegal disability discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The report comes from Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education site.
It was launched following a complaint was submitted by attorneys Brad Dembs and Karen Bower on behalf of a student whose identity was not released.
The much-redacted complaint explains the student was subjected to discrimination by the school on the bases of a “mental disability.”
“NMU discriminated against [redacted] by threatening to dis-enroll [the student] for discussing [the] mental disability and imposing … conditions of enrollment that are needlessly onerous and intrusive, which are not imposed on students without disabilities or with physical disabilities,” the recent complaint noted.
For example, the school tried to ban the student from “discussing suicidal thoughts or actions with residents of [a student residence] hall, friends, or other students.”
In addition, a school-imposed agreement authorizes the dean of students to release information about the student to parents “or to any party who may be able to assure responsibility for [the student’s] care.”
Officials at FIRE explained they had reported on the problem several months ago and at the time the administration revealed plans to end “the practice of telling students suspected of having suicidal thoughts that discussing those thoughts with others would result in disciplinary action.”
FIRE said those instructions, however, still remain in a student handbook.
“Now, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division has opened an investigation into NMU to determine whether treatement of students suspected of self-destructive thoughts amounted to disability discrimination,” FIRE said.
The student who filed the complaint with the DOJ reportedly discussed a mental illness with a friend, and NMU responded by threatening disenrollment.
“This despite the fact that state police, who were called in to investigate by a resident director, determined that the student was not in danger. Furthermore, a suicide assessment conducted by the NMU Counseling Center – to which the student acquiesced under pressure from Dean of Students Christine Greer – also determined he or she was not suicidal.”
FIRE reported it learned of DOJ’s involvement in the issue after the group’s September reporting “brought to light that our organizations were focused on different legal aspects of the same problem.”
“Since 2011, NMU has sought further guidance and direction from the Office of Civil Rights concerning university policies related to students with thoughts of self-harm. Our desired outcome of the DOJ investigation is to receive clear instructions concerning our policies and practices as we strive to better serve all of our students. NMU cannot discuss specifics of any case or student situation as dictated by Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.”
They also denied forbidding students from talking to others about self-harm thoughts or withdrawing students from classes if they “express self-harm thoughts and/or exhibit self-destructive behavior.”
“While FIRE’s primary concern is the First Amendment issue in the case, MPAS [which brought the complaint on behalf of the student] is a private, nonprofit disability rights organization, designated by the State of Michigan as the agency responsible for protecting and advocating for the legal and human rights of persons with disabilities in Michigan,” FIRE reported.
“The DOJ investigation of MPAS’ complaint provides an opportunity to account for and address some of the extremely troubling open issues that remain regarding NMU’s treatment of students suspected of contemplating or engaging in self-harm. Although the administration quickly moved to quell last fall’s public outcry over its practices by publicly committing to end the practice of forbidding students from discussing self-harm, it left students like MPAS’ client with a number of unanswered questions,” the report said.
“Does the administration’s September 26, 2016, statement that ‘NMU does not forbid, in writing or verbally, students from talking to others about self-harm thoughts[,]’ mean that the Behavioral Agreement signed by MPAS’ client no longer applies? Does it mean that current students told by the dean of students’ office not to involve their friends in discussion of self-destructive thoughts – at least as recently as the Spring 2016 semester, per student reports to FIRE – are now free to ignore those directives? Do the NMU policies and practices related to self-harm raised in MPAS’ complaint result in unlawful disability discrimination against students?”
Further, Beck-Coon wondered, what about the students who previously have been impacted, since the practice apparently had been in place since 2002.
“I recently spoke with NMU graduate student Molly Fox, who was hospitalized in January of this year because of self-harm. When Molly left the hospital, she was called in by the head of her department to learn that she had lost her graduate teaching position and her teaching stipend. Then, in early February, she was called in for a meeting with Associate Dean of Students Mary Brundage. At that meeting, she was informed she would not get in any more trouble as long as she had not ‘involved’ any other students in the circumstances surrounding her hospitalization,” Beck-Coon wrote.
Fox told FIRE, “What I want is for NMU to take this issue more seriously and with more compassion than they have, and I want them to recognize the harm that this policy has caused. When I was feeling most vulnerable and low, I found very little support from NMU, and was threatened with punishment if I simply reached out to my friends or others in my program.”
She explained the school’s policy “made me feel ashamed, scared, and like the school I devoted so much time and energy to was a place I felt almost ashamed to have any connection with. I hope and have confidence that they will take the necessary steps to make this right, and think it’s the least they owe all of the students.”