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. Afterward, she contacted FIRE.
Victory: Northern Michigan U. Publicly Tells Students They Can Discuss Self-Harm
MARQUETTE, Mich., September 30, 2016—On Monday, Northern Michigan University (NMU) finally stated publicly that it will discontinue its long-standing practice of forbidding students from discussing thoughts of self-harm with others. NMU’s announcement came just days after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a national press release calling on the university to end this unconstitutional practice.
“NMU has finally done what we asked them to do in a private letter over a month ago,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “It’s disappointing that it took public pressure for NMU to simply tell its students it will no longer punish them for discussing their mental health with their friends and peers.”
NMU’s statement comes almost a year after an email in which an administrator threatened disciplinary action against a student if she shared “self-destructive” thoughts with other students circulated on social media and caused a campus uproar. NMU administration later publicly acknowledged that it sent similar warnings to 25 to 30 students per semester. NMU student Katerina Klawes—who received such an email—responded by creating a Change.org petition calling on NMU for reform that drew over 2,500 signatures and local media attention.
The community outpouring led NMU to pledge last fall to improve its practices. However, as of September 2016, NMU had not informed the campus community whether any changes were in place. After hearing from a first-year NMU student who was discouraged from talking about self-harm to peers during a summer orientation session, FIRE wrote an August 25 letter to NMU calling on the administration to publicly inform students that they would no longer face disciplinary consequences for reaching out to their peers about self-harm.
FIRE issued its September 22 press release after receiving no response from NMU, prompting a furor from the NMU community and the national public. Students and alumni affected by the practice shared their experiences on social media and reached out to FIRE, including several students told by the NMU Dean of Students Office not to talk to other students about self-harm as recently as the Spring 2016 semester.
Days later, in a September 26 statement and email to the community, NMU “acknowledg[ed] that changes to the self-harm letter and protocol were not effectively communicated to campus in early 2016 when they took effect.”
“Given that the dean of students’ office was still telling students not to talk to others about self-harm last semester, I’d say some clarity was necessary,” said Tuthill Beck-Coon. “Hopefully, now that NMU has made a public commitment, students will no longer have to fear reaching out to their friends. FIRE will be watching.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org