NMU agrees to settle in mental health policy case

NMU+agrees+to+settle+in+mental+health+policy+case

Tim Eggert

Four NMU students will receive portions of a $173,500 financial settlement as part of an agreement reached between the university and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division after an incident in which a student told a fellow student she was at risk for suicide.

The Justice Department initiated an investigation following a July 2016 complaint filed with its Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section that alleged NMU discriminated against an individual with a disability in violation of Title II under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The student alleged that NMU threatened to “dis-enroll” her and required her to submit to a “psychological assessment” and sign a “behavioral agreement” after she sent a chat message to another student in which she told her that she has had major depressive disorder and her doctors were
concerned that she was at risk for suicide.

She further alleged the behavioral agreement prohibited her from engaging in any discussion of suicidal thoughts or actions with residents of her dorm, friends or other students, the settlement said.

In its investigation, the Justice Department identified three other current or former students who also alleged NMU discriminated against them based on disability in violation of Title II by requiring them to meet with the Dean of Students or the Associate Dean of Students, who threatened them with disciplinary action for sharing suicidal or self-destructive thoughts with other NMU students to undergo mandatory psychological assessments to maintain enrollment; to abide by certain conditions to maintain enrollment; and/or to involuntarily withdraw from NMU.

All four complainants alleged NMU took these actions in consonance with its Policy Relating to Student-Self Destructive
Behavior.

The policy defines self-destructive behavior as “an attempt or attempts on the part of an individual to end his/her life or to inflict serious bodily harm on himself or herself by any means capable of producing such result” and “a serious threat or threats on part of an individual to employ such means for such purpose.”

It also stipulates that in any situation in which a student appears to have manifested “self-destructive behavior,” which causes “profound changes in the activities of University faculty, staff, and other students” the student will no longer be enrolled, “subject only to the possibility of conditional reinstatement during compliance with the terms of a behavioral contract between the student and the University.”

From its investigation, the Justice Department determined the policy did not reflect or impose legitimate safety requirements within the meaning of Title II and the Dean of Students office took adverse action against students with mental health disabilities who did not pose an actual risk of serious self-harm.
The settlement states NMU will comply with Title II, which orders that “no qualified individual with a disability will, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.”

NMU was mandated to draft an “ADA/Non-Discrimination Policy” that documents the requirements of Title II and its implementing regulation.

Within that policy, specifically, NMU cannot discriminate against applicants or students on the basis of disability, including those with mental health disabilities and must conduct an individualized assessment and case-by-case determination over whether modifications can be made to allow a student with a disability to participate in university services, programs and activities.

NMU is to also create a “Reasonable Action Policy,” that covers multiple actions, guaranteeing that students with disabilities may request academic accommodations; housing and dining accommodations; modifications to University policies, rules and regulations; environmental adjustments such as the removal of architectural, communication or transportation barriers; and auxiliary aids and services.

While a public entity may impose legitimate safety requirements necessary for the safe operation of its services, programs, or activities, according to the agreement, the public entity must ensure that its safety requirements are based on actual risks, not mere speculations, stereotypes or generalizations about individuals with
disabilities.

Additionally, the university must remove its Policy Relating to Student Self-Destructive Behavior from www.nmu.edu/policies and any other websites, handbooks and other locations where the policy is located or referenced.

A specification that states a student who takes a voluntary psychological withdrawal may seek early return or an extension of that set length of time must be added to NMU’s Voluntary Psychological Withdrawal
Policy.

The university is to also revise the same policy to include a stipulation that claims the length of such a withdrawal and “any conditions for return will be based on an individualized assessment of each student and the best available medical evidence, with careful consideration given to the opinions and recommendations of the student’s treating physician or mental health professional, if available.”

An ADA training program for staff must be developed by NMU as well.

“NMU is pleased to have settled with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on a 2013 student complaint alleging discrimination based on an NMU policy,” Chief Marketing Officer Derek Hall said in a statement emailed to The North Wind. “NMU’s former policy was based on then existing interpretation of law and was followed by many universities and colleges. The OCR changed its interpretation and began investigating complaints.”

The university is working to initiate actions specified in the settlement and items will be completed within the timeline of the agreement, Hall said in the statement.

“NMU welcomed clarification from DOJ and OCR and has made changes to campus procedures,” Hall said. “NMU continues to put the health and safety of our students first. NMU provides many services to students to insure their well-being and NMU has been recognized as one of the safest campuses in the country.”