Student Says He Was Expelled After Seeking Counseling
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
A major concern on college campuses is suicide. It's the second leading cause of death among 20-to 24-year-olds. Schools are struggling to protect students at risk without violating their rights. In one of the first cases of its kind a former George Washington University student has sued the school. He says that when he sought treatment for depression he was expelled. Nancy Marshall Genzer has more.
NANCY MARSHALL GENZER reporting:
Jordan Nott's story begins on a sleepless night in October of 2004. He was very depressed about his best friend's suicide six months earlier. His friend had jumped out the window of his dorm room. Nott, who was then a sophomore, says he went to the university counseling center five or six times. He was prescribed the anti-depressant Zoloft and sleeping pills. But that night, Nott says, the pills weren't working.
Mr. JORDAN NOTT (Former Student, George Washington University): It was about 2 a.m., and I begin feeling more down, and because it was late I did not want to call a phone number or wait until the morning. I wanted to get help right then.
GENZER: So Nott checked himself into the university's medical center in Washington, D.C. Two days later Nott got a letter saying he'd violated the university's code of conduct on endangering or suicidal behavior. Nott says he wasn't suicidal, but he was suspended and barred from campus. Nott left the university. He's now at the University of Maryland, but he's suing George Washington, saying he was discriminated against in violation of a number of laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Mr. NOTT: It take courage to stand up and say I need help, and that's what I felt like I was doing. I was standing up and admitting that I needed to talk to someone, and there I was two days later getting punished for it.
ELLIOTT: George Washington University spokeswoman Tracy Shario wouldn't comment specifically on Nott's case, but she says the university's policy on such suspensions is not meant as a punishment.
Ms. TRACY SHARIO (George Washington University Spokeswoman): It is meant as a short-term solution to ensure the safety and well-being of the individual who has expressed an endangering action or words or thoughts.
GENZER: The University's top priority, she says, is the safety of students.
Ms. SHARIO: An interim suspension only means that we are requesting that you get additional mental health counseling and evaluation to determine the ability to complete the semester, to return to the residence hall.
GENZER: The National Mental Health Association says death from suicide outranks all other forms of medical illnesses among teenagers and young adults, and colleges are dealing with growing numbers of students who are on medication for mental health problems. George Washington and many other schools have policies that allow involuntary suspensions of students who are perceived as a threat to themselves or others. Shario says it's only used in extreme cases where a student is contemplating suicide.
Ms. SHARIO: It is the extraordinary situation where a student is potentially in danger and he or she is unwilling or unable to take the next steps to help him or herself.
GENZER: But Jordan Nott says that's not what happened to him. He insists he wasn't suicidal, just depressed. When it comes to dealing with such cases, there is a huge gray area, says Gary Pavella. He is Director of Judicial Programs at the University of Maryland and helps universities develop policies for students with mental disabilities.
He cites the high-profile case of a student who committed suicide at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000. Her parents have sued university administrators and staff, saying they didn't do enough to prevent her death. Universities, Pavella says, need to protect their students and themselves.
Mr. GARY PAVELA (Director, Judicial Programs, University of Maryland): There could be circumstances where a student in a residence hall is making repeated suicide threats and attempts, and somehow that behavior is made worse by their being in the residence hall. It might be appropriate to remove the student from the residence hall even on an involuntary basis.
GENZER: But Pavella says that should be a last resort, and he worries that a fear of lawsuits and a concern for students might drive some colleges to overreact.
For NPR News I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer in Washington.
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