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Following suicide attempt, student filed complaint against Princeton alleging discrimination

In February 2012, a freshman was allegedly asked to withdraw from the University following a suicide attempt, according to a discrimination complaint filed with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The student attempted to fight the administration’s decision, the July 2012 complaint read, but ultimately left for two semesters.

The complaint was initially dismissed in January 2013 by the OCR, although the student’s lawyers allege that the determination was incorrect and are appealing the decision. The OCR has since reopened one question raised in the complaint about the conditions imposed to the student after he returned from a one year leave from Princeton, University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua said.

At the time, the student alleged, he was fully qualified to continue as a residential student because he met the essential eligibility requirements and the University’s academic and non-discriminatory behavior standards. The student was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, type II. 

Just as the student was leaving the hospital following the suicide attempt, he was informed that the University had evicted him from his dorm room, that he was prohibited from his classes and that he was banned from all areas of campus, according to the report. Though he was not forced to withdraw, the University noted that if he did not withdraw voluntarily, he would have to leave once he had missed enough of his classes to warrant withdrawal. He returned in fall of 2013 as a sophomore.

“These are crafty people,” the student told Newsweek in an article published on Tuesday. “They did everything right to get me out of there.”

The student, who was quoted anonymously in the Newsweek article, could not be reached for comment.

“There’s nothing about this case that makes it unique; it’s unfortunately and shockingly very common,” the student’s lawyer, Julia Graff, said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.

The student and his lawyers are working towards an appeal of the OCR’s initial decision.

The report’s timeline

In the fall of 2011, at the start of his freshman year, the student sought treatment from the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services and was referred to an outside psychiatrist. In the spring of 2012, he stopped receiving CPS services and began seeing the outside psychiatrist exclusively.

Early that spring, on Feb. 25, 2012, the student ingested 20 Trazodone tablets but immediately began to try and vomit them out. He then sought help at CPS and the University Medical Center at Princeton. He was discharged three days later, and the hospital staff and a county crisis screener determined that he did not pose an imminent risk of harm to himself or others.

As he prepared to attend an evening class, his first after being discharged, his mother received a voicemail from the director of student life in his residential college saying that he had been banned from setting foot on any of the University’s 500-acre campus. The University never publicly articulated a reason for doing so, the complaint said, and the ban was lifted on April 24.

Although the student met with the director of student life and the associate dean of undergraduate students, telling them he wanted to come back while continuing to pursue outpatient treatment, they told him that they believed he still posed a direct threat to himself. They strongly encouraged him to voluntarily withdraw from Princeton, as this was “always the outcome in these cases.” Before he could be readmitted, he would have to show six to nine months of “demonstrated stability.”

He was also told that he could not come back for the fall 2012 semester, because the University is built on a system of “course-stacking,” central to the Princeton experience, which would be unable to accommodate him returning in the fall, according to the complaint. He would have to wait to reapply in the spring semester.

The student and his lawyers continued to go back and forth with Princeton in negotiations. He was repeatedly told that his suggestions were unreasonable accommodations that would fundamentally alter the Princeton experience. For example, he requested a taping or transcription of classes he would miss during his ban, or, alternatively, a note-taker through the Office of Disability Services. Both of these requests were denied.

The dean of undergraduate students sent him another letter on March 7, informing him that the University still believed he had an “extremely high risk of having another dangerous episode.” The letter included many details from an assessment by CPS that the student originally thought were confidential, according to the complaint.

He eventually did voluntarily withdraw from the University. Of the $24,862 he was charged for the 2012 spring semester, $7,621 was not reimbursed, Newsweek reported. The student returned to the University in fall 2013 with sophomore standing.

The Lawsuit

Mbugua declined to comment on this case specifically, citing the confidentiality and privacy expectations of the student.

“The well-being of students is important to us,“ Mbugua said. “It’s a shared responsibility facilitated through the collaboration of offices and departments across campus.”

On campus, Mbugua said, there are variety of mental health resources available to students, such as counseling services in McCosh and 24/7 access to health for students.

In the case that a student must withdraw from the University, the student is able to work with the dean and other officers to “ensure his or her time away is productive and that the student’s return to campus is successful,” Mbugua said.

Graff, a staff attorney with the Bazelon Center who, along with Ira Burnim, legal director of the Center, helped the student file his complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, said the case was “emblematic of a widespread problem across the country.” She explained that universities like Princeton do not always know how to best handle cases of mental and psychiatric disability. Because a lawsuit would have taken up much of the student and firm’s time and resources, and because the name of the student might have gone public at some point, they chose to file a complaint with the DOE, Graff explained.

To determine whether a student poses a direct threat and meets perpetual eligibility requirements, the University must perform a five-step legal analysis considering the imminence, likelihood, nature, severity and duration of the threat, Graff said,. In addition, if the harm caused by the threat can be mitigated by reasonable accommodations, the University is obligated to provide them.

Graff said that they were ready to negotiate, but the University was unwilling to make accommodations. For example, the University rejected offers by the student to live with his mother off-campus, take a part-time course load, and leave for a single semester as opposed to a full year, she said.

“Each time we came up with an idea, Princeton said, ‘No, that won’t work, we can’t give that accommodation,’ ” Graff said. “I think there’s an unwillingness to be creative because of the discriminatory attitude.”

The only two reasons a university can reject an accommodation, Graff said, were if the accommodation were a fundamental alteration to the University experience or if it presented an undue burden upon the University.

Currently, the case is in appeal following what Graff called an “incorrect legal analysis” by the OCR, and has not yet been resolved.

Of particular concern, Graff said, was the fact that the University had called in its own psychiatrist to evaluate the student, setting aside the diagnosis and the recommendation of the student’s original CPS-referred doctor.

“They understand learning disabilities and physical disabilities,” Graff said. “They just don’t understand psychiatric disability.”

Burnim said that the Bazelon Center has been in talks with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to try and form consistent policies, so that universities have standard procedures for cases like this. The DOE has issued guidance on student discipline in the past. However, those guidelines were related to safety and violence in schools.

Mbugua said that the University does not have a standard procedure for cases like this, instead looking at each case on its own.

“There is no specific process automatically implemented, because each case is handled individually,” Mbugua said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”

“The big picture is for Princeton and other universities to understand that you can’t just get rid of people who have disabilities based on your stereotypes or your assumptions,” Graff said. “You have to look at the facts of each individual case.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article did not properly acknowledge the fact that the complaint filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had been initially dismissed in January 2013. Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misattributed allegations made by the student’s defense about the OCR.  The ‘Prince’ regrets the errors

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