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Standing Up for Mental Health, Losing Faculty Job

She spoke out against the termination of her campus's only mental health counselor. A student died, and she got canned. Now this professor is suing Florida Poly for infringing on her protected speech.

September 14, 2018
 
Christina Drake

An assistant professor of engineering at Florida Polytechnic University is suing the institution for alleged violations of the First Amendment, saying it failed to renew her contract because she publicly criticized its mental health services -- both before and after a student suicide.

Christina Drake's lawsuit, filed this week in a Tampa court, says that she has received positive performance reviews, teaching awards and grant funding at Florida Poly since she began teaching there in its inaugural year, 2014. But she says things changed this summer when she felt compelled to speak out against numerous staff terminations, including the university's sole librarian and -- crucial to her case -- the sole campus mental health counselor.

In June, Drake spoke at a meeting of the Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida, linking decreased on-campus mental health services to an increased risk of student suicides. While most campuses struggle to meet student mental health demands, Florida Poly presents particular challenges: it is a new, rural institution with relatively few opportunities for extracurricular activities on campus or off, and the entire male-dominated student body is pursuing demanding degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering and math.

"I pleaded with the board," Drake said in an interview Thursday. "This place is a pressure cooker. Mental health is not an area that we can afford not to make a priority."

Then, in August, a Florida Poly student fatally shot himself while sitting on a campus bench.

The Tampa Bay Times subsequently published a news story called "At Florida Poly, a Student Suicide and a Question: Could It Have Been Prevented?" The article quotes Casey Fox, the laid-off campus counselor, as saying she knew the late student, Kevin Masculine. (She said she could not disclose whether Masculine was a patient of hers.) "There's no way to tell if that student would have reached out," Fox told the Times. "There's no way to know because there was no one there. There was no one on campus to be that person."

Drake, who was interviewed for the article, was quoted as saying, "We have a campus makeup that is a ticking time bomb" for mental health issues. The newspaper also noted Drake's previous warning to the board, which she paraphrased as, "You cannot put students in this high-stress situation and outsource it and say, 'Hey, call this number.'"

That was a reference to the university's new plan for mental health: outsource campus counseling to an off-campus, network service with scalable delivery hours and a maximum wait time, overseen by an on-campus case manager who works for the university.

"Our decision to shift to an on-campus case-manager and the BayCare Student Assistance Program is based on what is best for our students," a university spokesperson said via email. "The new model offers students access to face-to-face counseling care, no matter the day or time. This model also offers a broader scope of services and access to a much larger network of mental health professionals with diversity in experience. This is not possible with one counselor on staff. Students can also take advantage of phone-based care and self-guided wellness modules, none of which were possible when we only had a single campus counselor.

Florida Poly has attributed the recent layoffs to various organizational changes, such as the outsourcing of mental health -- which it says was not a cost-saving measure. But Drake, Fox and others have said that the university targeted employees who were involved in union activity. Drake is supported in her lawsuit by the National Education Association-affiliated United Faculty of Florida. In certain ways, her case resembles one at Georgia State University in 2012, in which the university outsourced mental health jobs; some former employees said that only happened after they complained about relevant policies they said hurt students.

Drake alleges that university administrators immediately expressed "anger" at her over the Times article. She told Inside Higher Ed that she was repeatedly encouraged in person by various supervisors to stop being so "negative" about the university.

Attributing some of that to gender discrimination, Drake also said it was "crazy" for her colleagues to suggest that speaking out about student mental health was "negative."

"We have this unique campus situation and we have to take mental health seriously," she said.

Days after the article appeared, Provost Terry Parker informed Drake that her contract would not be renewed for next academic year. That's despite the fact that annual contracts are automatically renewed for professors in good standing, Drake says.

"No one has sat down and told me why I was laid off."

Beyond losing her job, Drake said it's hard, as an "educator and a mother" to see a campus in crisis. She said students have cried in her office over Masculine's suicide and what they perceive as the institution's indifference to mental health.

"This is sad for multiple people, not just myself."

Numerous legal cases have demonstrated the limits of free speech for public employees, especially regarding comments that are pursuant to their official duties. Drake's lawsuit says that her interest in speaking out about mental health concerns and other campus issues "outweighs any legitimate interest that the university might have in suppressing free speech." She says that Florida Poly's retaliatory actions have damaged her reputation, and she's seeking compensatory and punitive damages and a trial by jury.

The university said in a statement that it is its policy not to comment on pending litigation, but that it had not yet been served a copy of the complaint. A spokesperson denied that Drake had been not renewed due to her public comments, but she did not provide a reason for non-renewal when asked.

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