NOTT v. GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
Jordan Nott was a straight-A sophomore at George Washington University (GWU) in the fall of 2004 when he sought emergency psychiatric care for depression. When they learned of Nott’s hospitalization, university officials charged him with violating the school code of conduct, suspended him, evicted him from his dorm and threatened him with arrest for trespassing if he set foot on university property.
Jordan Nott had become depressed after a close friend committed suicide, so he went to the university’s counseling center, which prescribed antidepressants. But he felt worse and began to worry about a potentially negative drug reaction. At 2:00 am one Saturday morning, he voluntarily admitted himself to the university hospital.
Within hours, Nott got a letter saying that he could not return to his dorm without receiving clearance from the university counseling center and the “community living and learning center” (his dorm). The following day, while he was still in the hospital, another letter came, charging him with “endangering behavior” in violation of the school’s code of conduct. Who or what he “endangered” with the “behavior” of seeking treatment remains a mystery.
Jordan could attend a hearing before the judicial board, the letter said, but if the board found him guilty of violating the student code of conduct he faced suspension or expulsion. Or he could withdraw and seek readmission upon proof that he had successfully completed medical treatment, had been symptom-free for six months and could live independently and perform successfully. He chose to withdraw and completed his studies at the University of Maryland.
The Bazelon Center filed a complaint on his behalf in October 2005, with the law firms of Heller, Huron, Chertkof, Lerner, Simon & Salzman, and Howrey, LLP as co-counsel, pro bono. The hope was that settlement discussions would lead to development of a model policy for educational institutions—one that would treat self-injurious behavior and thought as a mental health issue, encourage students to seek help without punishing them, and include a firewall between counseling services and administrations.
On October 31, 2005, George Washington University and Jordan Nott reached an agreement to resolve the lawsuit. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
The Nott settlement comes in the second lawsuit to challenge a university’s exclusion of a student who has sought mental health services. In August of 2006, the City University of New York agreed to pay $165,000 to settle a suit brought by the Bazelon Center on behalf of a student who had been barred from her dormitory room at Hunter College because she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The state university system has agreed to review and revise its policies for such situations.
The Bazelon Center’s goal in bringing these and other such cases, beyond obtaining compensation for students who have been unfairly excluded, is reform of educational institutions’ policies toward students who seek mental health services. The Bazelon Center released guidelines for schools responding to the needs of students with self-injurious thoughts or actions in a manner that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.