NMU threatens expulsion for discussing 'self-destructive' thoughts

Northern Michigan University does not allow students to discuss “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions” with their peers, threatening disciplinary action if they do.

According to New York Magazine, NMU has been sending out roughly 25-30 letters per semester to students contemplating suicide or self-harm, informing that that “you will face disciplinary action” for broaching the subject of personal difficulties with classmates.

“It is important that you refrain from discussing [self-destructive thoughts] with other students and use the appropriate resources listed below,” Mary Brundage, the associate dean of students, wrote in one such letter to student Katerina Klawes.

The letter was prompted by “a report that others are worried about your well-being,” and requests a meeting “to discuss your options for support,” though it quickly clarifies that pursuing peer support is not among those options.

Klawes, a sexual assault victim, received the email after speaking with a school counselor in early 2015 about how she felt following the assault, but maintains that she never broached the subject of suicide with the counselor.

“If you involve other students in suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions you will face disciplinary action,” the letter nonetheless continued. “My hope is that, knowing exactly what could result in discipline, you can avoid putting yourself in that position.”

Klawes, naturally concerned by the threat, responded to Brundage in an email, asking, “if I respond to concerned people, is that enough to get me in trouble? I do not want to worry others by not responding and I do not want to have the possibility of getting expelled by reaching out to my friends during this emotionally trying time and I see the possibility of misunderstanding or getting more concerned.”

Brundage replied that she could tell her friends how she is doing, “in general,” but reiterated that she could not address any suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions, calling it “a very specific limitation.”

Somehow, that exchange failed to placate Klawes, who proceeded to create a Change.org petition protesting the policy, which has thus far accumulated nearly 3,000 signatures.

The petition makes 10 demands, including elimination of the policy and an official apology to students affected by it, asserting that “this policy is outdated and will prohibit students from getting help that is needed.”

NMU responded with a statement on its website asserting that the negative feedback “has been heard,” saying, “the university welcomes the opportunity to improve its processes and policies to serve the best interests of its students while upholding our ethical and legal responsibilities.”

Months went by without any action, however, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) eventually intervened by writing a letter to NMU President Fritz Erickson on August 25 asserting that, however well-intentioned the policy might be, it violates the First Amendment rights guaranteed to students at public universities.

According to FIRE, NMU has previously expelled students for violating the policy against discussing self-destructive thoughts, and although Dean of Students Christine Greer claims that it has not been enforced since 2013, the school continues to send letters warning students about the ramifications of violating the policy.

“Despite NMU’s assurances that its students’ concerns have been heard and understood, the administration has yet to announce an end to the practice of preventing students from speaking with their peers about self-harm,” the letter admonishes. “FIRE does not suggest that NMU adopt a particular approach to peer support or suicide prevention...but whatever approach NMU does implement, it cannot impose unconstitutional gag orders.”

After waiting for nearly a month and receiving no response from the university, FIRE issued a press release last week urging its supporters to contact Erickson and demand an end to the practice.

“NMU is imposing a gag order on students at a time when a conversation with a friend may be most needed,” FIRE Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon stated. “Preventing students from simply reaching out to each other for help cuts off the most basic exercise of the right to speak freely.”

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