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Did St. Thomas U. expel a student for complaining? University stonewalls — in violation of federal law — as FIRE investigates.

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A student who says she simply complained to administrators about her graduate program soon found herself expelled from it — without so much as a hearing. 

Now FIRE is investigating what exactly happened at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida — and whether the university is also ignoring federal law in refusing to comply with records requests from FIRE.

Natalia Garceau says STU expelled her from the school’s Leadership and Innovation Ed.D. program in December after she complained about the program’s administration. STU allegedly threatened Garceau with arrest if she set foot on the campus.

STU, while private and not bound by the First Amendment, nonetheless promises students free expression. That means speech critical of the program or school — without more — is protected and cannot be cited as grounds for expulsion.

Garceau says her expulsion also failed to follow the process for expulsion outlined in STU’s Student Handbook. Those written procedures — like STU’s free expression promises — are contractually binding on the university. STU promises students facing expulsion sufficient notice and information regarding the alleged policy violation, a hearing, the opportunity to appeal, and more. 

Garceau says she got none of that.

FIRE wrote to STU Jan. 16 asking the school for additional information on Garceau’s alleged policy violations, as well as evidence that proper procedures were followed in her dismissal. We included an authorized request from Garceau for the university to share with FIRE information under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which requires sharing specific kinds of information in Garceau’s circumstances within a strict 45-day window.

STU replied Jan. 24 that our letter contained “several misstatements of fact,” but failed to identify any facts or records that would establish whether STU had valid reasons for Garceau’s expulsion and whether it provided Garceau due process.

FIRE again responded Jan. 28: 

"Respectfully, FIRE is not in the practice of placing undue faith in administrators’ opinions about whether their conduct is fair,” wrote FIRE program officer Lindsie Rank. “Instead, we look to facts. Our letter requested specific records that would help establish that St. Thomas University did, in fact, follow its process and acted in a fair manner."

After a significant delay by STU, FIRE once again followed up with the school last month, sending a third letter reminding administrators of their obligations under FERPA and informing them that the federally-mandated deadline for their response had passed.

FIRE calls on STU to live up to the commitments it makes to its students, and meet its moral, contractual, and federally-binding obligations to release information regarding this case. 

Students deserve to know whether the university delivers on its promises.

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