A proposed law that would prohibit public universities in Virginia from expelling students solely on the basis of suicidal behavior is nearing approval.
The bill, which was unanimously passed by the Virginia state legislature in mid-February, is the first of its kind in the country. In addition to banning universities from expelling suicidal students, the law would also require universities to implement policies to help troubled students get help.
In fall 2004, former GW sophomore Jordan Nott alleged he was suspended from school and barred from campus because he told a University counselor that he had general thoughts of suicide. He filed a civil suit against the school and numerous administrators alleging that GW’s policies discriminate against those with mental illness. Nott and the University settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.
Although the bill does not directly affect GW because the University’s Virginia campus is private, the legislation’s sponsor has used the example of Nott in justifying the law’s necessity. Virginia Delegate Al Eisenberg (D-Arlington) said he decided the law was necessary after reading about the number of college students who commit suicide each year.
“I was appalled by certain colleges that thought it was reasonable to expel these kids at the worst possible time,” Eisenberg said.
He said the new law would force universities to aid mentally-ill students rather than abandon them.
“We want the universities to devise policies that would help students be directed towards mental help professionals as opposed to neglecting them,” he said. The bill does specify university policies to aid students; that is left up to their individual discretion.
Eisenberg said he was surprised by the amount of support the bill had among Virginia universities and is confident that Governor Tim Kaine will sign the bill into law.
GW Director of Media Relations Tracy Schario said despite Eisenberg’s claims, GW was in compliance with the law in the Nott case.
“(The Nott incident) was not one act, and what the proposed Virginia law said is you cannot be thrown out wholly for seeking mental health or threatening to commit suicide,” Schario said.
She added that Nott even admitted his behavior was part of a broader pattern. “Unfortunately, these situations are not black and white,” Schario said.
The law will not affect the way universities operate, Schario explained, because the Department of Education and the Americans with Disabilities Act already prohibit students from being, “penalized or expelled solely for attempting to commit suicide, or seeking mental-health treatment for suicidal thoughts or behaviors,” she said quoting the Virginia law.
Schario said that similar policies at GW already address this issue. Officials are mulling a new policy that would make asking a student to leave because of endangerment an administrative rather than judicial issue. She said the new policy should take effect this fall.
The specifics of the Nott case are private under the settlement GW and Nott made Nov. 2. In a press release after the settlement, Nott said he hoped his fight against the University would cause change in the way schools approach mental health treatment.
Nott said, “I hope that this difficult experience will result in positive changes in how student mental health issues are handled at campuses across the country.”
-Kaitlyn Jahrling contributed to this report.