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Student allegedly forced to withdraw following suicide attempt sues Princeton

A student has filed a lawsuit against the University and seven administrators.

A student has filed a lawsuit against the University and seven administrators.

The student previously alleged to have been forced to withdraw from the University following a suicide attempt is now suing the University for disability discrimination in federal court, according to documents filed last Tuesday.

The student had originally filed a discrimination claim with the The Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Education. The claim was initially dismissed in January 2013 but the DoE has since partially reopened the case.

The suit was filed by the student on March 25. The student is currently a sophomore and had been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, Type II. In a brief, the plaintiff, identified by a pseudonym, requested that he be allowed to proceed in the case anonymously to avoid public stigma and emotional distress over the potential publication of his medical records.

“As a direct result of [Princeton University's] actions he has experienced extreme embarrassment, continuing stress and mental anguish, as well as out-of-pocket expenses, foregone wages, and reputational injury,” the complaint reads.

The student filed the suit pro se, meaning that he will be representing himself rather than through a lawyer. The student had been represented by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a legal organization specializing in mental disability cases, in his DoE complaint.

Lawyers at the Bazelon Center did not respond to requests for comment over the weekend. It remains unclear whether the Center is advising the student in any capacity in this suit. The student could not be reached for comment.

In addition to the University as a whole, seven administrators were named as defendants in the case: Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherrey, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Cole Crittenden, Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan, Associate Dean Michael Olin and President Emerita Shirley Tilghman, in addition to Executive Director of University Health Services John Kolligian, Jr. and former Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Anita McLean.

The document includes 21 relevant statutory schemes and 10 causes of action pertinent to the case, listing components of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act which the student believes were violated. In addition, a legal brief accompanying the complaint alleges “unlawful disclosure, distortion, and misuse of plaintiff’s confidential medical records detailing matters he discussed with various mental health professionals.”

The student requests, in addition to appropriate compensatory and punitive damages, “injunctive relief” that would prevent the defendants from discriminating on the basis of disability against the student or anyone else.

The document also lists 59 allegations against the University arguing that the student was in fact fully qualified to function as a student because he met the essential eligibility requirements.

University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua declined to comment on the case, saying the University does not discuss pending litigation.

However, he noted that members of the University community work together with students and families in issues of health and well-being.

The student “impulsively ingested” about 20 tablets of Trazodone, on Feb. 25, 2012, the document read, but waited less than one minute before seeking assistance from the health center. He was then taken to a hospital, where he stayed for several nights.

As he prepared to leave, the document says, his mother received a voicemail from Olin saying he had been barred from campus and therefore from attending classes.

“If he did not ‘voluntarily’ withdraw, he would be involuntarily withdrawn in approximately three weeks for failing to attend the classes from which he had been banned,” the student alleges in the document, saying the University should have known that because the forced withdrawal would produce emotional distress, it was therefore against the student’s best interests and would likely exacerbate his condition.

“Instead, Princeton sought to protect itself from adverse publicity or liability,” the document reads.

The student met off-campus later that day with his psychiatrist to organize a partial hospitalization program at Princeton House, a health facility two miles from the town. He also met with McLean and a staff psychiatrist to evaluate his mental state. He alleges that they encouraged him to speak freely, which led him to falsely believe that the content, though not necessarily the conclusion, of his communications was confidential.

He met with Olin and Crittenden immediately afterwards, where he was allegedly told that voluntary withdrawal from the University was the “universal outcome” in cases such as these.

McLean allegedly said at the meeting with Olin and Crittenden that she could not clear him to return to student life while he pursued outpatient treatment, adding that he could not be readmitted until he had demonstrated stability for a period of no fewer than six to nine months. In the process of this discussion she disclosed what the student had previously believed to be confidential details from his records and their earlier conversation.

The University went on to cast aside several solutions proposed by the student and his mother, the document alleges, contending that they would be fundamental alterations of “the Princeton experience.”

The student’s parents also met with Cherrey, Deignan and Kolligian to appeal on his behalf and submitted a plan for permitting the student to remain in school, which the administrators allegedly did not read.

The student was sent a letter by Deignan the next day informing him that he was believed to have an “extremely high risk of having another dangerous episode” and that the intensive inpatient treatment programs were incompatible with the full-time enrollment required of students. The student also alleges that many of the details from his CPS records included in the letter were inaccurate and, furthermore, initially believed to be confidential.

Kolligian contacted the student’s personal psychiatrist, who recommended that the student be allowed to continue in his studies and live in a residential college. A few days later, the student allegedly received a letter saying that if he did not voluntarily withdraw in four days, Cherry would order mandatory withdrawal — the same “universal outcome” Olin had discussed a month earlier.

The student alleges that there was a “denial of any meaningful interactive process with respect to accommodations and a further reflection of the lack of any policy requiring such a process.”

He did eventually withdraw after four weeks of unsuccessful attempts to appeal the University’s decision, in an “emotionally depleted and fearful state and in recognition of the futility of his position.” He completed courses at another university, and even lived in its dorm for a semester.

The document explains that he was given a list of requirements to satisfy before applying for readmission including evidence of improvement in his mental state and undergoing a psychological evaluation that was allegedly not generally required.

The student is now back on campus, but he alleges in the document that his transcript will always have “an awkward, one-year gap. He will always be a year behind his friends in classes, housing placements, and entering the workforce.” The document says that he will always be afraid to get help from mental health professionals, and that this fear of getting help could be disastrous.

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