Another major university has settled a major lawsuit challenging its treatment and handling of a mentally ill student.
Within months of settlements by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the City University of New York's Hunter College, George Washington University said Tuesday that it had reached a confidential agreement to resolve a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Jordan Nott, who challenged George Washington's policies after he said he was forced to leave the university after seeking help for depression at the university’s counseling center.
Nott's lawsuit alleged that the university had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and other local and federal laws by charging him through the student disciplinary process and barring him from the campus; George Washington officials have consistently defended Nott's removal from the campus as necessary to protect other students and Nott himself.
Statements released by the university and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, which was helping to represent Nott said that the parties declined to disclose the terms of the settlement, which came as lawyers in the case were in the "discovery" phase of the lawsuit, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, and the like.
"This was a very difficult situation. We were attempting to serve the best interests of Mr. Nott while also considering the well being of all of our students," said John F. Williams, George Washington's provost and vice president for health affairs. "While we recognize that some steps in the process may not have been perfect, we stand by the result. We appreciate Mr. Nott's support in resolving this matter, and we wish him continued success."
Nott said: “I hope that this difficult experience will result in positive changes in how student mental health issues are handled at campuses across the country. And I certainly hope that other universities will not discipline their students for seeking mental health treatment.”
Karen Bower, a lawyer for the Bazelon center, said that she was "pleased that GW is reviewing and revising its policies, and hope that Jordan’s case and others will prompt universities to adopt policies that do not penalize students for seeking mental health treatment and that are not linked to the disciplinary process.”
A George Washington spokeswoman, Tracy Schario, said the university had been reviewing its policies on students' "involuntary withdrawal for medical mental health reasons" since before the lawsuit was filed, and that it expects to announce a revised policy soon. The specific goal of the revised policy will be to develop an administrative process for removing mentally ill students against their will, but without involving disciplinary action; at the time Nott was suspended, and even now, "the only tool we have is the disciplinary process" when the university wants to remove a student because it believes he or she poses a threat because of mental health, Schario said.
She noted that while hundreds of students at George Washington each year experience depression or are potentially suicidal, it is "an extraordinary case" in which the university seeks to have the student leave against his or her will. Schario said the university's evolving policy would probably align in important ways with a framework released this summer by the Jed Foundation.
Colleges and universities have faced increasing litigation over their policies related to mentally ill students, and in recent months, George Washington becomes the latest to settle highly visible cases. In April, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a confidential agreement to resolve a lawsuit brought by the family of a student who lit herself on fire in her dorm room and died in 2000, and in August, Hunter College agreed to pay $65,000 to settle a lawsuit challenging the public college's policy governing students deemed to be at risk of suicide.
Bower of the Bazelon center said she hoped the settlements at Hunter and George Washington would discourage colleges from having policies, "however well intended," that punish students rather than discourage them from "getting the needed help," which are often adopted as an "overreaction to liability concerns."
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