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Hiding the Bodies

July 13, 2006

At a time when many college officials are thinking about strategies to help students talk about mental health issues, Glendale Community College administrators have spent the summer dealing with ramifications stemming from their decision to block a student newspaper's report on two recent campus suicides.

On June 9, Jane Pojawa, editor of the California campus’s student newspaper, El Vaquero, published a report by Pauline Guiuan noting that two Glendale students had killed themselves in the past year. Both students were in the nursing program at the college and some of their friends had written about their deaths on MySpace.com.

Guiuan reported alarming statistics on the numbers of college and university suicides each year, and the increasing numbers of students with mental illnesses on campuses nationwide.

“The GCC community is not a stranger to this tragic reality," wrote Guiuan. She also quoted multiple mental health experts on campus who talked about ways for students to cope with stress and the realities of mental illness.

Soon after the report appeared on newsstands and was posted on the newspaper’s Web site, the paper’s faculty adviser, Michael Moreau, was summoned to President John A. Davitt’s office.

“He felt that this publicity was damaging to the nursing program and to the college in general,” Moreau said Wednesday. “He said it reflected poorly on the institution.”

Davitt, who retired on June 30, asked that the article be removed from the Web site, and Moreau obliged, saying that he feared for his job. Within days after publication, Moreau noticed that almost all newspapers were removed from their stands after his talk with the president. Davitt has said that he did not have the papers removed, but Moreau said that there has never been a case in his six years as adviser where all or most stands were completely void of newspapers.

After agreeing to take the article off the Web site, Moreau felt he had made a mistake.  He soon contacted another newspaper adviser in California and officials with the Student Press Law Center, a national group that advocates for student free press issues.

They argued that the president had no right to interfere with the First Amendment freedoms of the student paper. Moreau informed Pojawa, the editor, about the situation and she decided that the paper should repost the full article on its Web site and that links to local media coverage of the controversy would also be provided.

Officials with the student health center were especially concerned about the president’s actions. They have said that the report was thorough and could encourage students who are feeling depressed to seek help.

Moreau agrees with that assessment. “The article makes people more aware of a growing problem,” he said. “People with mental illness are already sometimes stigmatized. I think that the administration sent the wrong signal.”

Despite facing a bevy of criticism from students and others, Davitt did not back down. In an e-mail sent to the campus on his last day of work, he said that “the nursing department was respecting the request of the family and not providing confidential information to the press.” 

“Unfortunately, this article has caused great stress and pain to the nursing faculty and their students,” he wrote. “Many feel that it has tarnished the reputation of the program which is one of the most highly regarded in the state with a recent pass rate of 100 percent." Davitt could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center, said Wednesday that the retired president’s argument doesn’t hold legal weight.

“This was a clear First Amendment infringement,” he said. “How student newspapers cover suicide is sometimes contentious, but I haven’t seen the kind of actions that were taken in this case.”

Goodman noted, too, that Glendale’s actions seem to be out of step with resounding legislative support for a pending bill that would extend First Amendment protections to all college journalists in California. The state would be the first in the nation to provide such support, if the bill ultimately becomes law.

“My guess -- my hope -- is that they’ll step back and proceed in a collegial, rather than directive, way,” said Goodman.

Moreau said he is scheduled to speak with the new Glendale president, Audre Levy, next week regarding the controversy.

 

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