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GWU suit prompts questions of liability

A former George Washington University student has sued the school after he was asked to withdraw for seeking treatment for suicidal thoughts.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

About 2 a.m. one sleepless night, sophomore Jordan Nott checked himself into George Washington University Hospital.

He was depressed, he said, and thinking about suicide.

Within a day and a half of being there, he got a letter from a GWU administrator charging him with violating the code of student conduct for his "endangering behavior" at that time. He faced possible suspension and expulsion from school, the letter said, unless he withdrew and deferred the charges while he got treatment.

'Like a stab in the back'
In the meantime, he was barred from campus.

"It was like a stab in the back," he said. He felt they were telling him, "We're going to wipe our hands clean of you."

His response has college administrators around the country taking notice: Nott sued the university and individuals involved. The school violated federal law protecting Americans with disabilities, the complaint argues -- the law covers mental as well as physical impairments.

In essence, it says the school betrayed him by sharing confidential treatment information and pushing him out on a temporary suspension just when he most needed help.

In court documents filed this week, the university's attorneys defended the actions taken, denied that Nott was disabled and suggested his conduct might bar his recovery. And they asked that the charges be dismissed for the individuals named -- mostly administrators and counselors. The university policies might seem impersonal, spokeswoman Tracy Schario said, but they are designed to keep both individuals and the community safe.

Suicidal students have always forced tough calls. But with shifting legal ground, growing threats of lawsuits and increasing numbers of troubled teenagers entering colleges, many administrators are even more worried about how to handle them.

Historically, administrators have not been held responsible for student suicides, said Karen-Ann Broe of United Educators, but recent -- and not yet settled -- cases have thrown that in flux.

At Ferrum College in Virginia, where a student had made explicit threats before committing suicide, a judge said before the case was settled that the college has a duty to prevent suicide if the risk is readily foreseeable. "That's a pretty radical innovation of the law," to hold people with no expertise in mental health accountable, said Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland.

Administrators confused
Preliminary and conflicting rulings at other schools, including MIT, have left administrators confused about whether they could be held liable, Broe said.

Until the 1960s and '70s, colleges were expected to take care of students almost as parents would. Then students demanded to be treated as adults. Now Broe sees another shift, with more talk of sharing responsibility.

And there's more nervousness, Pavela said. "College administrators are talking about it and looking for guidance. . . . Some have decided that the safest thing to do is to get rid of these kids, if someone talks about suicide, or looks depressed."

More schools are adding involuntary-leave policies. Some ask students to sign consent forms so their confidential medical and psychological records can be shared. Schools can legally alert parents and others if there is a threat to health or safety -- and now, some say, they are far more likely to do that. And some are expanding training for professors, dormitory staff and others, giving them warning signs to watch for, or designing crisis intervention plans with mandatory counseling.

"To have knowledge and fail to act is just an invitation to liability," said Sheldon Steinbach of the American Council on Education. The decision has to be balanced against whether a student would get the best support on campus, he said, but keeping a troubled student in a dorm means taking a tremendous risk.

There's a risk in mandatory-leave policies, too, Pavela said. Federal law allows schools to remove students who are a threat -- but they need to go through a slew of steps to ensure that it's the best option and that the student has had a chance to respond.

Most students wouldn't confide in a counselor, he added, if they knew it could get to a dean.

Dream shattered
GWU was Nott's dream school, he said recently. He'd always wanted to study foreign relations in Washington, he said, so after starting classes, making friends his freshman year, getting straight A's, he was the happiest he'd ever been.

But it was a tough year for GWU, with several sudden student deaths. One evening in April, near the end of the semester, a freshman jumped from the fifth floor of a dorm.

He was one of Nott's closest friends; they had planned to room together sophomore year.

When he jumped, the complaint says, Nott and two others were trying to open his locked door to help.

In fall 2004, when Nott came back to school, he started feeling depressed, he said. He kept thinking about how his friend had died.

In September, another student committed suicide.

Nott began going to the University Counseling Center, he said.

He began taking psychiatric drugs and told them he thought about suicide but would not act on it, according to the complaint, and did not attempt suicide.

In the hospital, one of the letters he received suggested that he could withdraw to defer the charges. He decided not to argue his case at a school judicial hearing to be held two days after he left the hospital, he said, worried that an effort to fight the charges would fail and leave him with a permanent black mark, an expulsion or suspension, on his transcript.

He withdrew, went home to Upstate New York, he said, missing his friends and worried that he had ruined his education. Weeks later, he waited for his father and friends to lug things down from his dorm because, he said, he had been told he could be arrested for trespassing.

If he had known, he said, he never would have gone to the hospital.

The counseling center staff followed ethical and professional guidelines and didn't disclose confidential information, Schario said. She can't discuss specifics of the case but said officials can find out about students through many sources, including roommates and dorm staff.

It takes an extraordinary circumstance for the university to step in, she said. As to whether there needs to be a suicide attempt or violent act, she said, "sometimes yes. There could be words expressing a behavior, a suicide attempt, other potentially endangering behaviors."

His temporary suspension is the procedure they use to ensure due process, she said. GWU is considering changes, Schario said, including whether judicial proceedings are the best way to handle such cases.

In April 2005, he withdrew permanently from GWU, and transferred to the University of Maryland.

He's 20 now, a senior already because he has crammed in classes. He looks easygoing, with short brown hair and faded jeans, and he said he's not depressed anymore, but there's a determined edge in his blue eyes.

"I'm trying to make this college experience," he said, "as short as possible."