The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law has sued George Washington University on behalf of former student Jordan Nott, claiming the university violated his civil rights when they dismissed him from campus after seeking treatment for depression.
The case is based on a series of events beginning Oct. 27, 2004. According to Karen Bower, one of Nott's attorneys, Nott had become depressed after a close friend committed suicide, and he voluntarily admitted himself to the university's counseling center, which prescribed him anti-depressants.
Nott began to feel worse and decided to admit himself to the university hospital.
Within hours, according to Bower, Nott received a letter informing him he could not return to his dorm room without permission from the university counseling center, and later was informed he had violated the school's code of conduct by engaging in "endangering behavior" and was dismissed from the school.
"A few students rise to the level of risk that requires time away from campus and/or classes for more intensive treatment and family support," GW spokesperson Tracy Schario said in a release. "While some may see the ultimate goal as to stay in school, the university's foremost concern is for the student's life."
According to Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland, colleges around the country are overreacting to court rulings concerning colleges’ liability in student suicide cases.
"Schools are concerned about liability for failure to protect from suicide or to prevent suicide," Bower said. "If [their decision to dismiss a student] is based on liability, it is a poor choice because liability from failure to prevent is theoretical, and I think that liability for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act is much more actual."
Pavela pointed to an ongoing case in Massachusetts as part of the cause for this reaction. The Massachusetts case involves the parents of Elizabeth H. Shin, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who committed suicide in 2000. They are suing two MIT administrators and four medical employees for negligence in their daughter's death.
Pavela said schools face a greater threat of litigation under the ADA by dismissing students with mental illness than they would from a student who commits suicide while on campus.
"[The idea that] law all across the country is being transformed somehow to hold college administrators liable for student suicide is just not true," Pavela said.
Robert A. McGrath, UW director of Counseling and Consultation Services, said he could not believe the circumstances surrounding Nott's dismissal from GW, saying UW would "never do something like that."
"That would be pretty extreme for a university to do that," McGrath said. "[To] punish them for coming in and talking about being depressed, that would be pretty unethical."
McGrath went on to say that in the case of Shin's death, there was a close relationship between her and health-care officials at MIT, and that these health-care professionals did not act appropriately to prevent her death.
Additionally, McGrath said UW's response to situation similar to Nott's would be to work with the student to determine the best possible decision, which could include temporary hospitalization or voluntary withdrawal from the university.
"We certainly wouldn't be the instigator to push them out," he said.