Outrage reignited by FIRE

Winter Keefer

Following several days of outcry on social media, NMU is now assuring students they will no longer face negative disciplinary action for speaking with their peers about thoughts of self-harm.

“NMU does not forbid, in writing or verbally, students from talking to others about self-harm thoughts,” said a campus-wide email sent by the Dean of Students Office on Monday.

NMU was trending on social media last week following a press release published Thursday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that blasted the university’s former practice of prohibiting students from discussing thoughts of self-harm with their peers.

“Preventing students from simply reaching out to each other for help cuts off the most basic exercise of the right to speak freely,” FIRE Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon said in the press release.

The concerns outlined by FIRE were quickly picked up by other news organizations, including New York magazine, which published an article on the topic that received over 25,000 shares.

Many spoke out on NMU’s Facebook page, demanding an apology from the university. Some students who had received the original communication about disciplinary action shared their stories, while some NMU alumni expressed shame in their university.

The practice of disciplinary action toward students expressing to their friends thoughts of self-harm, was applied up until early this year, said Christine Greer, associate vice president and dean of students, adding that it is no longer applied in any form.

The email sent Monday to students in response to concern, acknowledged that changes to the self-harm letter and protocol were not effectively communicated to campus in early 2016 when they took effect. NMU’s self-harm practices originally sparked controversy last year, after an email sent to a select group of students, outlining the school’s policy and procedures related to mental health, was made public in November.

“If you involve other students in your suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions you will face disciplinary actions,” the email stated.

The outrage from students and community members spurred the creation of a petition online to remove policy 3.1.2 from the student handbook, which received over 2,000 signatures within 24 hours. Warning students that they could face disciplinary action if they talk about suicidal or self-destructive thoughts with other students was never actually written in the policy relating to student self-destructive behavior, Greer said. It was never a policy, but rather a practice.

“It was in use when I came in 2002 but I don’t know how long before that,” she said.

The practice was originally started due to concern for the safety and health of those close to students expressing self-harm tendencies, Greer said.

“We have had students come to us and ask us for help because friends are asking them to take care of them and students didn’t feel equipped to do that—students missing class, students not studying because other students were depending on them to keep them safe,” Greer said. “That’s how it started.”

Students were only ever limited on discussing self-harm or suicide, not their feelings of depression or anxiety, Greer said.

“It was never that they couldn’t talk about depression,” she said. “That was never, ever said. And in fact, in my communication with students when they asked, ‘Well, what can I talk about with my friends?’ I honestly would say, ‘You can talk about anything, but not that you’re going to kill yourself.’ So depression was never part of the equation, ever.”

Many cases have been brought to the Dean of Students Office in the past involving students negatively impacted by stress due to involvement with peers dealing with self-harm, Greer said.

“We were trying to keep other students from being disrupted from what they were supposed to be doing here, which was studying, and going to class, and having fun,” she said.

The recent press release from FIRE was published after NMU did not respond to a letter from FIRE that requested a response to the organization’s assertion that the practice of limiting student speech about self-harm with peers was an infringement on First Amendment rights.

That practice was  not in effect when the press release was published but there was no clear public record that it had been changed earlier this year. FIRE’s letter was sent on Aug. 25 and gave a Sept. 9 deadline for a response from NMU.

“They sent us a tersely worded demand letter in August and we generally don’t respond to those types of communications,” Assistant Vice President of University Marketing and Communications Derek Hall said.

“We’re not beholden to FIRE as an organization—we are to the state, we are to the federal government. There are groups that we are responsible to answer to. FIRE is not on our list of organizations that we feel responsible to respond to.”

As a result of changes in federal regulations, NMU is awaiting further guidance from the Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights concerning protocols on how to assist students who are a danger to themselves.