Navigating the Uncertain Waters of Suicidal Students on Campus

January 13, 2014

By Laura H. Harshbarger

Inside Higher Ed recently reported a situation involving Western Michigan University (WMU).  According to published reports, WMU placed a suicidal student on involuntary medical leave.  The student appealed his dismissal and filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”).  The student was readmitted, but he later committed suicide in his apartment, where he was found by his roommate. At present, a debate is raging around this situation.  Some hail the fact that the student won the right to return to campus as a victory for emotionally distressed students.  Others see this as an example of the tragedy that may flow from OCR’s push to require colleges and universities to allow students to remain on campus after they are no longer well enough to be there.  Administrators are caught in the unenviable middle. The issue of what to do in response to suicidal students is anything but a clear one.  This was not always the case.  Over the course of several years, OCR had developed a fairly clear line of cases on this issue, and OCR generally supported involuntary withdrawals where students presented a direct threat to themselves or others.  OCR laid out various procedural “due process” steps and considerations to be met in these situations, which boiled down to notice of the intent to remove the student, an opportunity for the student to respond, and an individualized inquiry into the facts and circumstances of each case.  Most colleges and universities drafted policies incorporating those procedural steps and considerations. The present uncertainty exists as a result of a change to the regulations for Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In September 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) revised the Title II regulations, and, in particular, with respect to when a student was a “direct threat” such that the student was not otherwise qualified to remain enrolled.  The DOJ’s new direct threat definition is “a significant risk to the health or safety of others” (emphasis added).  That is, DOJ did not include an individual’s threat to self as part of the direct threat analysis.  The Title II regulations were announced in September 2010 and became effective in March 2011. Title II applies to public universities, not private universities.  Private universities are covered by Title III of the ADA, but OCR seems to be moving toward using the same direct threat analysis -- one that no longer considers a student’s threat to himself/herself -- for private universities as well.   OCR has not announced a formal renunciation of its earlier line of cases, and it has been assumed for some time that OCR will provide official guidance to clear up this confusion.  To date, that has not happened. The unfortunate reality is that administrators are in the position of having to “pick your lawsuit”.  A decision to involuntarily remove a suicidal student may result in a discrimination claim.  Of course, if a student commits suicide on campus, the institution runs the risk of wrongful death or negligence claims, not only from the student’s estate but from other students traumatized or even physically injured in the event.  Beyond the legal risks, there are bedeviling educational and ethical questions that go to the balance between the interests of the mentally ill student and the interests of the learning community as a whole. That elusive “right thing to do” depends on the unique circumstances of each situation.  With that said, the following are universally helpful factors to bear in mind.

(1)       Be certain to consider each situation on an individualized basis, taking into account the student’s behavior on campus, the opinions of campus mental health professionals, and the resources available short of an involuntary leave that may allow the student to remain safely enrolled.

(2)       If a leave of absence is in order, it is always best that the student leave voluntarily -- truly voluntarily (not threatened into a voluntary leave).  This is always the safer route, from a liability standpoint.

(3)       If the student is to be removed involuntarily, consider whether there are facts to be cited demonstrating the student’s threat to “others” as well as to “self”.  The student’s removal should be based on these larger community-type factors in addition to any expressed or anticipated harm to self.

(4)       Ensure that leave policies do not treat removals for psychological reasons more harshly than removals for other reasons.  If a readmission policy is more onerous for psychological leaves versus other leaves, OCR may find the policies discriminatory on this basis alone.  If an institution requires “proof” that a psychological condition has been addressed before readmitting a student, it should require some kind of similar “proof” from students who required leaves for other reasons -- whether general medical reasons, finances, family commitments, and so on -- that the circumstances that necessitated these non-psychological leaves have been dealt with as well.

(5)       Be sure the institution’s policies reflect its sense of the appropriate balance of the legal, educational and ethical concerns these situations present.  Once that balance is decided upon, the institution must follow its policies carefully and precisely with respect to each troubled student.  OCR is highly attentive to an institution’s compliance or lack thereof with its own published policies.

There will no doubt be further legal developments and continued academic debate around these very difficult situations.  In the meantime, administrators should work closely with legal counsel to navigate the best path forward for their particular institution.

Sexual Assault Cases on Campus – The Rise of Claims from the Accused

January 1, 2014

By John Gaal

university-building1In the past three years, there has been considerable activity on the Title IX/Sexual Assault legal front.  We have all read about the increase in claims  brought by victims against their institutions through the complaint procedures of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.  There have been well publicized resolution agreements reached between OCR and institutions.  And there has been the April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter issued by OCR that has been the subject of much debate. But institutions are also starting to see an increase in push back from students accused of sexual assault.  A recent Bloomberg report highlights a number of legal complaints filed by male students against their institutions as a result of disciplinary action taken against them arising out of sexual assault claims. Institutions should not ignore these latest challenges.   At a minimum, they should review their existing investigation and hearing procedures not only to ensure that they provide appropriate protections for those accused, but to also make sure that they provide “equal” process for both the victim and the accused.  OCR has made it clear that the process needs to be the basically the same for both parties.  For example, if the victim has the right to have an advisor present throughout the proceeding, the accused must be afforded that same right; if the victim has the right to appeal a hearing decision, the accused must be afforded that same right. In addition, it is critical that institutions “execute” in accordance with their own policies and procedures.  While institutions have a fair degree of leeway with respect to what goes into their policies, the surest way to create a legal issue is to then not follow those policies.  Do not put something in your policy that you are not prepared to live with, and once you put it in your policy you need to make sure you follow it. Whether now, at the end of the calendar year, or in the Spring, at the end of the academic year, at least annually an institution should conduct a thorough review and audit of the past year’s sexual harassment/assault cases.  Determine what was done correctly and what could have been done better.  Based on those experiences, consider modifications to your policies and procedures, and/or to your implementation of them, to best position your institution, and the outcomes reached in your internal proceedings, against future legal attack.

When You Say You Are Going, You Are Going……….

December 26, 2013

By John Gaal
Institutions often make a “deal” with an individual faculty member that is memorialized in something less formal than a lawyer-drafted contract, and there is always that lingering question as to whether it will be “enforceable” if and when the time comes.  A recent decision involving Northwestern University is good news for institutions in this regard. Here, a faculty member had requested from the Dean a year’s leave so that he could visit at another institution.  The Dean indicated that she would provide that leave, along with a second leave to take place three academic years into the future (with the faculty member teaching in the intervening years) provided the faculty member would then retire at the end of that second leave.  Ultimately a “deal” was struck and the Dean followed up with a letter to the faculty member that provided “…I will accept your resignation from the …faculty effective with your retirement on August 31, 2012….”  The letter went on to explain his leave and teaching responsibilities. In 2011, the faculty member was reminded that the next year would be his last and then he would be retired.  He balked, indicating that he did not want to retire and insisting that he had never agreed to retire.  He filed an EEOC charge and upon receiving his right to sue letter, commenced an action in U.S. District Court in Chicago.  The District Court ruled against him and he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which also found for the University. First, the faculty member argued that the University discriminated against him by offering retirement packages to older employees but not younger ones.  After recognizing that employers would have little reason to offer retirement/early retirement packages to new workers, the Seventh Circuit confirmed that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) simply “does not forbid offers that favor older workers over their younger colleagues.” Next the faculty member argued that he construed his arrangement with the University as giving him an option to retire after the 2011-2012 year, but it was never his intent that he had to retire.  The Court had no trouble describing the arrangement reflected in the letter from the Dean a “contract.”  Nor did it have any trouble interpreting this agreement as committing the faculty member to retire no later than the end of the 2011-2012 year.  The faculty member’s non-sensical “understanding” – that it remained his option – would have had the University giving him two years worth of paid leave in exchange for only the possibility that he might retire after the 2011-2012 year (which of course was a possibility anyway).  As the Court observed:  “People pay to acquire options; they do not get options (and two years’ pay) handed to them for nothing.”  Thus the Court rejected the faculty member’s interpretation as unreasonable.  In a welcomed explanation of judicial reasoning, the Court observed: “judges understand written agreements to mean what reasonable people understand them to mean.” When so much happens between an institution and its faculty through less formal arrangements, often reflected in simple letters, it is good to know that Courts will recognize them and, along the way, provide a common sense interpretation.

Another Roadmap to Title IX Compliance: The SUNY/OCR Resolution Agreement

November 3, 2013

By John Gaal

university-building1At the end of last week, the U. S. Department of Education announced that its Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) had entered into a Resolution Agreement with the State University of New York (“SUNY”) dealing with Title IX compliance issues.  Significantly, the Agreement arose out of an OCR initiated investigation and was not based on the filing of any complaint against SUNY.  OCR’s Resolution Agreement and accompanying letter of findings are significant because, as with OCR’s Resolution Agreement earlier this year involving the University of Montana, they provide a roadmap as to what OCR considers to be the requirements of Title IX in the sexual harassment context. OCR’s latest pronouncements start with its basic operating premises:

  1. if a recipient of federal financial assistance knows or has reason to know about sexual harassment which creates a hostile environment, it must take immediate action to eliminate it, prevent its recurrence and address its effects;
  2. when responding to any complaint of sexual harassment, a recipient must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred;
  • if that investigation reveals that discriminatory harassment occurred, the recipient must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent recurrence;
  1. these duties exist regardless of whether a student has complained, asked the recipient to take action, or identified the harassment as a form of discrimination.

From there, these documents offer important insight into OCR’s perspective of the full scope of a recipient’s obligations under Title IX.  First, of course, the institution must have a policy expressly providing that it does not discriminate on the basis of sex in its educational programs or activities, that this prohibition extends to employment, and that  inquiries concerning the application of Title IX may be referred to the institution’s Title IX Coordinator or to OCR.  The Title IX Coordinator should be clearly identified by name or title, with contact information (phone number, address, email).  Notice of this policy must appear, at a minimum, in announcements, bulletins, catalogs and application forms used in connection with the recruitment of students and employees and should be published broadly including on the institution’s website.  Notice of the institution’s non-discrimination policy must also be provided to any unions representing the institution’s employees. Second, the institution must maintain procedures for resolving sexual harassment complaints.  These procedures can be either the same as those used for resolving other types of complaints or can be dedicated to the resolution of sexual harassment complaints, but in either event they must provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of complaints, whether brought by students, employees or third parties.  As in the University of Montana agreement, this Resolution Agreement and letter of findings set forth OCR’s view of what should be included in these policies:

  1. an appropriate definition of sexual harassment and examples of harassing conduct;
  2. clear notice of where complaints may be filed, including the name or title, phone, address and email information of those individuals;
  3. notice that students, employees and third parties may access these procedures (based on information we have received in other instances from OCR, we do not believe that OCR requires that the same procedure must apply to all three categories);
  4. designated and reasonable prompt timeframes for major steps of the grievance/complaint process;
  5. notice of the availability of interim measures to assist the complainant and the nature of those measures (such as the availability of counseling and academic assistance, steps that can be taken if the alleged perpetrator lives on campus and/or attends classes with the victim, etc.).  Pending the outcome of the investigation, a recipient must take steps to protect the complainant from further harassment, and must ensure that such interim measures will not disproportionately impact the complainant;
  6. notice of a complainant’s Title IX rights and any available resources, such as counseling services and their right to file a complaint with local law enforcement;
  7. in the event the policy provides for informal resolution procedures (such as mediation) the policy it cannot require a complainant to work the matter out directly with an alleged perpetrator, the complainant must know that he or she can end informal resolution at any time, and if the allegations include sexual assault/violence, mediation is not appropriate even on a voluntary basis (as was the case in OCR’s 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter,” OCR’s letter of findings refers to mediation as one example of informal procedures that may be available, but then provides only that mediation is not appropriate in cases of sexual assault/violence;  presumably other informal procedures may be);
  8. any hearing processes must be equally available to both parties, including the opportunity to present relevant witnesses and other evidence and if an appeal process is provided (based on the Resolution Agreement, it appears that OCR does not require an appeal procedure), it must be available to both the complainant and the respondent;
  9. written notice to the parties of the outcome of the proceedings, including any appeals (if appeals are provided for);
  10. assurances that the institution will take steps to prevent further harassment and to correct its discriminatory effects on complainant if appropriate;
  11. protections against retaliation, including ensuring that complainants know how to report any subsequent problems (and the institution should follow up with complainants to determine whether any retaliation or new incidents of harassment have occurred);
  12. assurances of confidentiality to the extent possible, but even if the complainant requests confidentiality or asks that a complaint not be pursued, an institution must nonetheless take all reasonable steps to investigate and respond consistent with that request for confidentiality or request not to pursue an investigation (although OCR has given little guidance explaining how an institution is to strike that balance appropriately);
  13. if the incident involves potential criminal conduct, the recipient must determine consistent with state and local law whether law enforcement should be notified (but it should not wait - more than temporarily - for law enforcement to carry out its responsibilities).

In addition to these provisions, OCR apparently expects an institution to maintain documentation of all proceedings (although OCR does not indicate how long).  Institutions also must provide training regarding the grievance process to any employees likely to witness or receive reports of sexual harassment and violence (e.g. faculty, campus security, university administrators, counselors, health personnel and resident advisors).  Training can be in person or on line for all staff responsible for recognizing and reporting incidents. Responsible persons are to report not only complaints brought directly to them, but also conduct they observe first-hand or learn about in some other way. The Resolution Agreement also requires SUNY to conduct an annual review of all complaints to identify patterns or systemic problems and to conduct annual climate checks. Simply because OCR required the above in its Resolution Agreement with SUNY does not mean it necessarily will require all of these items from every other institution, nor does an institution incorporating all of these items into its policies ensure that OCR will not require something more or different in a review of its policies.  Nevertheless, the above should provide a useful checklist for institutions to consider.