New Yorker spotlights lawsuit challenging Princeton suicidal student policy

Buildings on University of Califorrnia Berkeley Campus
Universities examine response to suicide attempts

On December 1, the New Yorker asked readers: Should Suicidal Students Be Forced to Leave Campus?

The question is at the heart of a closely watched lawsuit that accuses Princeton University of violating federal and state disability discrimination laws in its treatment of students at risk of suicide.

In the winter of 2012, a Princeton freshman, identified as W.P. in legal documents, attempted suicide. After taking 20 pills of Trazodone, an antidepressant, he reported himself to the school health center, which subsequently transported him by ambulance to the University Medical Center.

Three days later, the school informed his mother that he would no longer be allowed to attend classes or remain in his dorm. W.P. enrolled in a part-time hospitalization program, where he continued his course load, but the university refused to allow him to return, even though his private psychiatrist submitted a letter stating that he no longer posed a threat to himself.

In turn, W.P. filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Princeton eventually allowed him to return in spring 2013.

In March 2014, he filed a lawsuit against the Ivy League school in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, alleging that Princeton University discriminated against him on the basis of his perceived disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Fair Housing Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

The lawsuit states that as a result of Princeton’s actions, W.P. “experienced extreme embarrassment, stress, emotional pain and mental anguish, as well as out-of-pocket expenses and reputational injury.”

“Universities don’t seem to understand that mental-health disabilities are chronic illnesses, and it is not uncommon to have to be briefly hospitalized now and again,” Julia Graff, an attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, who is representing W.P. in the lawsuit, told the New Yorker. “It doesn’t mean that you are not competent to be a student.”

In recent years, students have filed similar complaints to the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights from Yale, Brown, George Washington University, Hunter College and Northwestern, among other schools.

Since there is no national protocol for how universities should handle such cases, the lawsuits are forcing some of them to rethink such policies.

“Any blanket policy is almost necessarily discriminatory,” said Susan Stefan, an attorney specializing in mental disability cases, told the Wall Street Journal.