In response to a FIRE press release yesterday, Northern Michigan University (NMU) is now publicly addressing widespread concern about its policy of threatening to punish students who discuss thoughts of suicide or self-harm with their peers.
However, their response has been woefully inadequate and, with respect to FIRE’s involvement, inaccurate.
After ignoring FIRE’s August 25 letter inquiring about the practice, NMU responded to our press release by posting a notice announcing—apparently for the first time—changes to how it communicates with students with thoughts of self-harm. The notice reads in part:
Questions concerning the NMU communication to students with self-harm inclinations were raised in November 2015 and the communication was changed at the beginning of 2016. Last year’s campus controversy resulted in a collaborative effort and the creation of the Mental Health and Well-being Taskforce, comprised of campus mental health professionals, student life staff and students. Together they have been working to better serve our students, provide better communication and most importantly, connect students with the needed resources. In short, the August 2016 assertions of the FIRE letter are incorrect.
NMU also posted a copy of the letter it currently sends to students “with self-harm inclinations.” The letter no longer contains language forbidding students from discussing thoughts of self-harm with other students on pain of disciplinary action.
NMU’s response and assertion that FIRE “is incorrect” about this issue demonstrates that NMU remains more concerned about maintaining its own image than making clear to students that they will not be punished for discussing self-harm with their peers.
For one, our letter asked NMU to publicly announce that it no longer employs its blatantly unconstitutional and harmful practice of threatening students with discipline for speaking with their peers about self-harm. Despite indicating it would take action after local media attention and a Change.org petition that garnered over 2,000 signatures in 24 hours last fall, NMU’s recent notice on its website appears to be the first and only time it has announced to the campus community any changes to how it corresponds with students about self-harm. It is deeply troubling that NMU would wait for national backlash against its practices to publicly announce such a change.
NMU’s inexplicable delay means that students—including the 25 to 30 students per semester that NMU admitted had received threatening emails from administrators—have had nearly a year to wonder whether they could reach out to a friend about thoughts of self-harm without risking punishment. That NMU did not post this notice in January of this year, when it claims to have made the change, is flatly unacceptable and stands sharply at odds with the First Amendment and common sense.
FIRE’s letter also asked the university to make clear to its campus community that students will never again face discipline or any other negative consequences for discussing thoughts of self-harm with other students. The university’s latest notice fails to directly address this concern. The most important question remains unanswered: Can NMU students talk to their friends about suicidal thoughts without any repercussion?
Moreover, NMU’s claim that it changed its practice in January 2016 has been challenged since yesterday’s press release. FIRE was contacted yesterday by an NMU student who, returning to school after a hospitalization in January of this year, was told verbally by the NMU administration that she may face punishment for discussing self-harm with friends. The question remains whether the administration’s email communications were the only problem or whether this unwritten practice persists in unwritten forms. We urge all other students who may have received similar communications to contact FIRE.
Despite NMU’s attempt at damage control, the bottom line remains the same: NMU must make clear to students, alumni, faculty, staff, and the general public—including the more than 2,000 people who signed a petition calling for an end to this practice—that NMU will never again threaten students with discipline or any negative consequence for reaching out to a friend to talk about self-harm.