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DOJ’s investigation of Northern Michigan University’s self-harm policies leads to settlement

After NMU student Katerina Klawes sought counseling following a sexual assault, the school warned her not to discuss "suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions" with other students. Instead, she contacted FIRE.

A United States Department of Justice investigation of Northern Michigan University’s policies and practices on student self-harm — which included the cruel practice of forbidding students from discussing thoughts of self-harm with other students — ended in a settlement agreement this month.  Under that agreement, NMU will split a $173,500 financial settlement among four of the DOJ complainants, who are among an unknown number of students impacted by the policies over the years. NMU will also be subject to ongoing monitoring by the DOJ.

The DOJ investigation was initiated following a July 2016 complaint filed on behalf of a student threatened with disenrollment after discussing a mental illness with a friend. The student was forced to undergo a suicide assessment by the NMU Counseling Center — which determined the student was not suicidal. Nonetheless, to remain at NMU, the student had 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.

As the DOJ investigated whether NMU’s treatment of students suspected of potential self-harm violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), FIRE raised First Amendment concerns about a similar type of gag order against discussion of mental health placed on student Katerina Klawes, among numerous other NMU students.

In September 2016, FIRE wrote to NMU to decry an egregious threat to student free speech. As we reported at the time:

Last fall, an outcry went up from the NMU community after an email from the administration to a student circulated on social media. The email threatened disciplinary action if the student shared “self-destructive” thoughts with other students. As reported in November 2015 by Marquette’s The Mining Journal, the administration admitted that it warned 25 to 30 students per semester that involving other students in “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions” would result in disciplinary action.  

After seeking counseling following a sexual assault, NMU student Katerina Klawes received one of these emails in March 2015, informing her that it was “important that [she] refrain from discussing these issues with other students.” An administrator clarified to Klawes in a subsequent email that she “cannot discuss with other students suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions.”

When her campus began discussing the emails, she started a petition titled “The I Care Project,” calling on NMU to revise its policies and practices on self-destructive behavior and speech. The petition received over 2,000 signatures within 24 hours and gained local media attention.

After this outpouring, NMU pledged to respond to community input and improve its practices. But almost a year later, NMU has failed to publicly commit to ending a practice that the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Michigan affiliate has deemed “outrageous.” An incoming NMU first-year student reported that she and others were informed during a 2016 summer orientation session—after NMU pledged to listen to community input—that they could face negative consequences if they discussed thoughts of self-harm with other students.

“Communication with a friend is frequently the pivotal first step toward seeking help, and many students may be more willing to initially share their feelings with a friend than with a school official or therapist,” said Dr. Mendel Feldsher, a psychiatrist who has worked with Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services at the Claremont Colleges for over a decade. “The increasing prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicidality in college students calls for increasing access to mental health services, not adding to stigma with a policy which promotes increased shame for the depressed and suicidal student.”

After FIRE wrote to NMU, the university finally stated publicly that it would discontinue the practice of sending emails threatening disciplinary action for discussing mental illness or self-harm. Although that change addressed FIRE’s First Amendment concerns as to that particular email practice, it left unresolved whether the university’s practices and policies complied with Title II, and whether NMU’s treatment of students suspected of self-harm in other contexts might violate the First Amendment.

Now, the DOJ settlement addresses lingering NMU policies and practices that have continued to impact NMU student civil rights and liberties.    

The settlement agreement, a copy of which was obtained by FIRE through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, is embedded below and available here. Although NMU admits no fault, the agreement recites the federal government’s determination that “NMU’s Dean of Students office took adverse action against NMU students with mental health disabilities who did not pose an actual risk of serious self-harm,” action “precipitated, in some cases, by information the office received through” an online reporting form “where anyone may anonymously report concerns.”

Other documents provided under FOIA reveal that one student, for example, was required to sign a Behavioral Agreement requiring them to agree that they would “not engage in any discussion of suicidal thoughts or actions with residents of my hall, friends, or other students.” Their offense? Discussing the possibility of ending their life nearly 20 years in the future due to a health condition.

Among the settlement terms, NMU is required to remove its Policy Relating to Student Self-Destructive Behavior from anywhere it is published or referenced. Klawes and many other mental health activists in the Upper Peninsula community have long advocated for the school to remove this policy, under which the student complainants to the DOJ were allegedly threatened with punishment or disenrollment.

Klawes, whose opposition to NMU’s policies and practices on student mental health sparked well-deserved anger — and subsequent change — at the university, is not one of the students included in the settlement agreement. She told FIRE:

I am thankful that some justice has been served for the students hurt by Northern Michigan University’s “self-harm policy.” The recognition from the Department of Justice proves that NMU was in the wrong. I hope that this can spark positive change at NMU and more services allocated toward mental health. Some of the students hurt by this policy received financial compensation, but many are not receiving anything.

I was deeply hurt by this policy and have not received anything from NMU, not even an apology.

NMU’s settlement will advance the rights of its students in the future, but it does not repair the harm caused by NMU’s atrocious practices towards students, many of whom were in crisis. NMU may have belatedly amended its practices to comply with its obligations under the law, but it remains indebted to students like Katerina Klawes.

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