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DOJ Opens Investigation into Northern Michigan University Self-Harm Policies

NMU Academic Hall

Northern Michigan University’s (NMU’s) policies on self-harm have once again brought scrutiny down on the Upper Peninsula school. In September of this year, FIRE reported on NMU’s practice of forbidding students from discussing thoughts of self-harm with other students. In response to a national outcry, the administration publicly announced an end to the practice of telling students suspected of having suicidal thoughts that discussing those thoughts with others would result in disciplinary action (although NMU has failed to remove related policies from its student handbook). Now, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Civil Rights Division has opened an investigation into NMU to determine whether its treatment of students suspected of self-destructive thoughts amounted to disability discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The DOJ’s investigation is based on a complaint filed on behalf of an NMU student by attorneys for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, Inc. (MPAS) and the Law Office of Karen Bower. NMU allegedly threatened to disenroll the student after he or she (identifying information is being kept confidential) discussed a mental illness with a friend. This despite the fact that state police, who were called in to investigate by a Resident Director, determined that the student was not in danger. Furthermore, a suicide assessment conducted by the NMU Counseling Center—to which the student acquiesced under pressure from Dean of Students Christine Greer—also determined he or she was not suicidal. In order to remain enrolled, Greer advised the student that he or she would have to sign a Behavioral Agreement that required, among other things, that the student not engage in any discussion of suicidal thoughts or actions with dormitory residents, friends, or any other students. Under protest, the student signed the agreement, which remains in effect today.

FIRE learned of MPAS’ DOJ complaint—as well as a long-pending investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights based on the same facts—after FIRE’s September coverage of NMU brought to light that our organizations were focused on different legal aspects of the same problem: NMU’s practices around self-harm and student mental health. While FIRE’s primary concern is the First Amendment issue in the case, MPAS is a private, nonprofit disability rights organization, designated by the State of Michigan as the agency responsible for protecting and advocating for the legal and human rights of persons with disabilities in Michigan.

The DOJ investigation of MPAS’ complaint provides an opportunity to account for and address some of the extremely troubling open issues that remain regarding NMU’s treatment of students suspected of contemplating or engaging in self-harm. Although the administration quickly moved to quell last fall’s public outcry over its practices by publicly committing to end the practice of forbidding students from discussing self-harm, it left students like MPAS’ client with a number of unanswered questions. Does the administration’s September 26, 2016 statement that “NMU does not forbid, in writing or verbally, students from talking to others about self-harm thoughts[,]” mean that the Behavioral Agreement signed by MPAS’ client no longer applies? Does it mean that current students told by the Dean of Students’ office not to involve their friends in discussion of self-destructive thoughts—at least as recently as the Spring 2016 semester, per student reports to FIRE—are now free to ignore those directives? Do the NMU policies and practices related to self-harm raised in MPAS’ complaint result in unlawful disability discrimination against students?

Just as importantly, will NMU ever be forced to acknowledge and answer for the harm it has already done to so many named and unnamed students and former students? The administration acknowledged that its recently-jettisoned practice of imposing gag orders on the discussion of self-harm had been in place since 2002 and that the Dean of Students’ office sent out 25 to 30 emails per semester threatening students with discipline for reaching out to friends. While NMU’s mistreatment of potentially hundreds of students with mental health needs is staggering, and its response to exposure has been reactive and clumsy, worst of all is the school’s failure to remedy or apologize for past wrongs.   

The stories posted to social media and told to FIRE by students after our September coverage are painful and deserve acknowledgment from NMU. I recently spoke with NMU graduate student Molly Fox, who was hospitalized in January of this year because of self-harm. When Molly left the hospital, she was called in by the head of her department to learn that she had lost her graduate teaching position and her teaching stipend. Then, in early February, she was called in for a meeting with Associate Dean of Students Mary Brundage. At that meeting, she was informed she would not get in any more trouble as long as she had not “involved” any other students in the circumstances surrounding her hospitalization.

Molly had heard about the controversy the previous fall surrounding NMU’s practice of forbidding students from discussing self-harm with other students, had signed a petition on the issue, and even discussed it with the classes she taught. She was surprised that, after all of the public attention, this was still happening to her. She was particularly concerned because her roommates, also graduate students, had taken her to the hospital—so they knew what had happened. She left the meeting with the understanding that if the administration found out her roommates had been involved, she could be kicked out of school. Indeed, she received an email the next day reiterating that she wouldn’t get in any more trouble as long as she hadn’t told anyone of her ordeal.

As Molly finished up work on her graduate Writing degree that semester, she dropped a second concentration in Pedagogy, choosing not to take a required teaching class when she herself was prevented from teaching. She graduated in the spring of this year and is now doing community-based work in Detroit. She sent me comments about her experience this past semester that I would like to share in full. NMU needs to hear them:

What I want is for NMU to take this issue more seriously and with more compassion than they have, and I want them to recognize the harm that this policy has caused. When I was feeling most vulnerable and low, I found very little support from NMU, and was threatened with punishment if I simply reached out to my friends or others in my program. Once again, I found it reiterated that mental illness is something to be ashamed of, not a very real medical issue that I have little control of. I regret not saying something when this happened last February, but I was honestly concerned that I would be kicked out with only a few months left of my program. I focused on my thesis (which is comprised of personal essays that look at mental illness) and just tried to keep my head down and graduate. I felt completely beaten down by everything that had happened, but wish I had pressed harder on it and am happy that it is getting real attention now.

I feel like NMU is trying to sweep this under the rug and quiet down the controversy, but they have a responsibility to the students who’ve been affected by this policy to recognize and apologize for how destructive it was. I love NMU, and the six years I spent there as an undergraduate and graduate student were some of the most influential and important years of my life. But this policy and the way it was enacted made me feel ashamed, scared, and like the school I devoted so much time and energy to was a place I felt almost ashamed to have any connection with. I hope and have confidence that they will take the necessary steps to make this right, and think it’s the least they owe all of the students.

Molly is not the only one who has expressed love of her school community, and faith that the administration will act to reconcile past harms and make the necessary policy changes that still remain. NMU should work to deserve her as an alumna along with everyone else who has expressed such faith. NMU should answer the unanswered questions posed above, offer an apology for its past harms, and work to ensure that all of its policies and practices are compliant with the First Amendment, Title II of the ADA, and other applicable laws.

FIRE hopes that by bringing attention to MPAS’ work on behalf of NMU students, and its open DOJ investigation, we encourage past and present NMU students to continue sharing your stories and contributing your voice to the record by contacting MPAS and FIRE.

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