by Brandon Butler and Ryan Holeywell
A former GW student has filed suit against the University, GW Hospital and eight campus administrators because he was suspended from classes, removed from his dorm and barred from campus after he sought treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts.
In a civil suit filed in D.C. Superior Court in October, former student Jordan Nott alleges that GW policies discriminate against students with mental illness and stigmatize those who seek help. He claims that in fall 2004, when he was a sophomore, information he shared with the University Counseling Center and GW Hospital was released to University administrators without his permission, leading to his suspension and barring from campus. Nott is currently enrolled at the University of Maryland. “The basic problem is that GWU is punishing students like Jordan who did exactly the right thing,” said Karen Bower, one of Nott’s lawyers, in an e-mail. “Most students would not seek medical care if they were fully informed that GWU would react, as they did in Jordan Nott’s case, by imposing immediate disciplinary action.”
Nott is suing eight administrators: University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman, Dean of Students Linda Donnels, Assistant Dean of Students Rebecca Sawyer, University Counseling Center director Diane DePalma, Student Judicial Services Director Tara Woolfson, SJS Assistant Director Michael Gieseke and University Police Chief Dolores Stafford.
Tracy Schario, GW’s director of Media Relations, declined to discuss the details of the case; she is speaking on behalf of the University and the hospital. GW is required to respond to the allegations by Jan. 18, Bower said. On Feb. 24, GW and Nott will meet to discuss a possible settlement and establish the future proceedings of the case. Trachtenberg, Woolfson, Sawyer and DePalma all deferred comment to Schario, and Lehman did not return calls for this story.
Schario defended the school’s endangering behavior policy, which applies to students who are suspected of being a danger to themselves or others. Nott was suspended, removed from his dorm, and barred from campus under the policy, according to a letter Donnels sent Nott. A copy of that letter was included in court documents. “The intent is for the safety and well-being of the individual as well as the community he or she lives in,” Schario said. “Those are sometimes competing factors.” She would not comment on what effect Nott’s case would have on the Counseling Center’s credibility.
Bower criticized the school’s endangering behavior policy, and maintained that Nott was never a threat to the safety and well-being of the community. “A good policy is one that encourages students to seek mental health counseling, and does not deter students from getting help or punish them for doing so,” Bower said. Nott could not be reached for comment for this story. His phone number is not listed in the D.C. or University of Maryland directories, and he did not return messages left with his lawyer.
The plaintiff’s account of events
According to the suit, Nott was a close friend of GW student Hasan Hussain, who took his own life in April 2004 by leaping off his Hall on Virginia Avenue balcony. The following fall, Nott went to the Counseling Center, where he met with DePalma, its director, for several weeks. University psychiatrist Dr. Joan Barber prescribed Nott medications for treatment of his insomnia and depression.
The suit says that Nott was not suicidal and never threatened suicide, but that he did have general suicidal thoughts; aware that his roommate would be out of town for the weekend, he checked himself into GW Hospital in the early morning of Oct. 27, 2004, for mental health treatment. Later that day, while still in the hospital, he received a letter from Sawyer saying that he would not be permitted back into his dorm, under the residential hall psychological distress policy. The next day, while still in the hospital, he received a letter from Donnels charging him with a violation of the Code of Conduct’s endangering behavior policy, according to the suit. He was issued an immediate interim suspension, told not to return to his Francis Scott Key Hall room, barred from GW property and threatened with arrest if he returned to campus. Nott was informed that if he withdrew from the University, the charges would be deferred. The letter was carbon copied to several university administrators.
The suit says Nott left the hospital Nov. 1, 2004, and met with Gieseke, the assistant director of SJS. Nott says he was told if he withdrew from school voluntarily, his suspension would not be shown on his record; but if he fought the charges and lost, he could face suspension or expulsion, and the charges would go on his record. He ultimately withdrew from GW on Nov. 8; he permanently withdrew in April 2005 and transferred to the University of Maryland.
On Nov. 17, 2004, Donnels sent Nott a letter confirming the Code of Conduct charges and saying his suspension was deferred, but that he was still barred from campus. The letter said if he remained symptom-free for six months, he could request clearance to return to GW. Nott is seeking damages stemming from eight complaints against the University including its alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, the D.C. Mental Health Information Act and the D.C. Humans Rights Act. Nott’s complaint also accuses the University of intentionally inflicting emotional distress and invading his privacy.
Nott is seeking a jury trial, though Bower said the overwhelming majority of lawsuits end up being settled. Bower would not say how much money Nott is seeking from GW, but a court document indicates he is demanding in excess of $100,000. The lawsuit alleges that GW Hospital and Nott’s doctor at the hospital, Dr. Benjamin Chan, unlawfully disclosed information about Nott to the GW administration and DePalma. The lawsuit also alleges that DePalma shared information about Nott with GW administrators. Both of these acts, the suit says, are in violation of the D.C. Mental Health Information Act of 1978.
In response to questions about a possible breach of confidentiality among GW Hospital, the UCC and University administrators, Schario said GW could have been informed of Nott’s situation from someone else outside of the hospital or UCC, such as a concerned friend. She said DePalma followed confidentiality procedures, but would not elaborate further.
In June, well before Nott filed the suit, the Washington City Paper reported that Nott was required to sign waivers before being admitted to GW Hospital. Though he signed a waiver authorizing Donnels to access information he had given to UCC that would have otherwise been confidential, he did not understand the waivers and did not know what he signed, the article said. Neither Schario nor Bower would comment on that aspect of the story.
In December, Inside Higher Ed, an online magazine, reported that DePalma had been told to work with a University lawyer “to develop a protocol that would protect the liability of administrators in instances where those receiving counseling might harm themselves or others.” The University released a statement last month saying it is “reviewing a range of crisis protocols, including those with respect to release of information.” Schario said GW was discussing changes to UCC policies prior to the Nott’s lawsuit, though she said his case was part of the motivation for some of the considerations.
Policy controversial but not uncommon
Ann Haas, research director at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said it is not uncommon for students to be dismissed from school after engaging in possible suicidal behavior. She said colleges that have such policies argue that they do not have the resources to deal with suicidal students and “are certainly also mindful of the potential liability they face if a student known to be suicidal returns to campus and subsequently takes his or her own life.” “The possibility of lawsuits has apparently caused a number of schools to institute harsh policies that essentially expel students who are suspected of being suicidal,” Bower added.
A case was recently brought against the Massachusetts of Technology by the parents of a student who appears to have committed suicide. The parents of Elizabeth Shin, who committed suicide in 2000, sued college administrators and staff for $27 million following her death.
According to the Boston Globe, non-clinicians usually aren’t held responsible for preventing suicides, but a judge ruled that Shin’s housemaster and a dean who had a special relationship with her could have foreseen that she would have hurt herself without supervision. The UCC’s current policy is that all sessions with counselors and students are confidential and information will not be shared outside of the UCC without the student’s consent, except in some emergency situations. Schario would not say if GW considered Nott’s hospitalization one of those emergency situations.
Local universities have similar policies with mentally distressed students. Sessions at the University of Maryland Counseling Center are also confidential, except in emergency situations such as when a student is a danger to themselves or others. “If we can not get a guarantee that a student is going to be safe, they must be taken to the hospital,” said Jonathan Kandell, assistant director of the UMD Counseling Center. “You can not just let a suicidal student walk out of the building.”
While Kandell said he has never heard of a situation in which a student was removed from housing because of being an endangerment to himself or others, he said it would not be out of the question for such a situation to happen at UMD. American University and Georgetown University said they review each situation on a case-by-case basis and would not say if a student could lose housing or be expelled for having suicidal thoughts. Haas, who directs AFSP’s college student initiatives, said her group believes that campus policies that punish students with suicidal behavior or expressions “increase the stigma associated with depression and suicide, discourage suicidal students from seeking treatment and do not serve the best interests of students or the institution.” Hass said universities that reach out to distressed students are more likely to prevent suicide than those that rely on “outlawing” suicidal thought and moving it off campus.