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.
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
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
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.” ▪