Legal News
Lawsuit Prompts College to End Policy on Suicide Attempts
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 19 page 27-38

A student evicted by Hunter College for seeking psychiatric treatment after a suicide attempt wins a settlement and succeeds in getting the school to overturn its controversial policy.

FIG1 Hunter College of the City University of New York has overturned a policy under which a 19-year-old honors student was evicted from her dormitory after attempting suicide in 2004. The school also settled a lawsuit later filed by the student as a result of the eviction for $65,000 in August.

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Rachel Glick, M.D.: Policies that evict students who harm themselves from campus housing worsen the stigma surrounding mental illness. 

Photo courtesy of Rachel Glick, M.D.

According to an amended complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York in June 2004, “Jane Doe,” the student, took 20 Tylenol PM pills in her dorm room before dialing 911. An ambulance brought her to nearby Cabrini Medical Center, and she was voluntarily admitted to the hospital.

After four days, hospital staff deemed Doe not to be a threat to herself or others and released her with a mental health treatment follow-up plan.

But when she returned to her dorm room from the hospital, Doe found that she had been locked out because the locks had been changed. The next day, she was forced to pack her belongings under the supervision of a security guard and vacate her room.

It was not until the following day that Doe learned the reason behind her eviction: her suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization had posed a liability risk to Hunter College and violated one of its housing policies. When Doe met with Hunter College President Jennifer Raab and Acting Vice President and Dean of Students Eija Ayravainen, she was informed of the school policy: “A student who attempts suicide or in any way attempts to harm him or herself will be asked to take a leave of absence for at least one semester from the residence hall and will be evaluated by the school psychologist or his/her designated counselor prior to returning to the residence hall.”

Doe sued the college, Raab, and Ayravainen on the grounds that they had violated several federal laws—the Fair Housing Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act—by evicting her from her dorm.

In a note that accompanied the lawsuit settlement, Hunter College promised to review its housing policy, which was developed in 2003. In August, a spokesperson for Hunter College told the New York Post that the policy mandating automatic eviction of students who attempt suicide or inflict other self-harm had been withdrawn.

Doe's victory may bode well for other students with mental illness who are unfairly evicted from campus, according to one of her attorneys.

“We are very pleased that Hunter College has abandoned this policy,” Karen Bower, J.D., told Psychiatric News. Bower is senior staff attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. “Our hope is now that other colleges and universities will look at similar policies to ensure that they comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and don't discriminate against students with mental illness.”

Blanket policies such as Hunter College's do not take into consideration a student's individual situation, Bower pointed out, and may even discourage students from seeking treatment for mental health problems.

“These policies do further harm to students who are vulnerable to begin with,” she remarked. “Such policies isolate students from their support systems and essentially punish them for seeking help.”

Other schools maintain similar policies, Bower noted, and some even ban students from attending classes for a certain period after an act of self-harm or suicide attempt.

Bower said she has heard of students living temporarily in hotels, cars, or homeless shelters after being evicted from campus for harming themselves. Attorneys from the Bazelon Center are currently representing George Washington University student Jordan Nott, who was evicted from campus and threatened with expulsion in 2004 after he checked himself into a hospital for depression treatment after a former classmate committed suicide (Psychiatric News, June 2).

Complaints have also been filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights against Bluffton University in Ohio and DeSales University in Pennsylvania for ousting students who had harmed themselves.

Rachel Glick, M.D., co-chair of the APA Presidential Task Force on Mental Health on College Campuses, told Psychiatric News that “blanket policies such as these don't make sense in terms of taking care of our students clinically” and increase the stigma surrounding mental illness on college campuses.

Glick, who is also associate chair for clinical and administrative affairs and a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, emphasized that “universities should be open to being informed by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals about what to do to enhance the care of the students, rather than just thinking about protecting themselves from lawsuits.” ▪

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Rachel Glick, M.D.: Policies that evict students who harm themselves from campus housing worsen the stigma surrounding mental illness. 

Photo courtesy of Rachel Glick, M.D.

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