may 17, 2018
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On Thursday, a group of current and former Stanford students filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Stanford, accusing the university of systematically mistreating students suffering from severe mental health issues and citing a pattern of discriminatory, harmful, and possibly illegal behavior by several Stanford administrators — including several current Residence Deans (RDs) — toward students hospitalized for suicidal ideation and behavior. Stanford was promptly served with a legal summons, and as is usual in these cases, they have 21 days to respond.

In a 34-page complaint, plaintiffs allege that Stanford students hospitalized for suicidal behavior are routinely threatened and lied to by RDs, evicted from on-campus housing while participating in an off-campus treatment program, coerced into agreeing to "voluntary" leaves of absence, forced to apologize for nonexistent "disruptive" behavior, and manipulated into giving Stanford administrators access to highly sensitive medical information, among many other serious charges.

After Stanford ignored numerous complaints about these issues by students, parents, and licensed doctors, the plaintiffs — who include several individuals as well as the Mental Health & Wellness Coalition, an association of over 20 Stanford student groups — decided to take the university to court, in what will certainly be a closely watched discrimination lawsuit.

Reached on the phone on Tuesday around noon, university spokesperson EJ Miranda said he had not heard of the lawsuit and asked us to send him an email, which we promptly did. Miranda did not respond by press time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a truly nasty story, and we seriously recommend stopping here if it sounds too upsetting. We’d also like to remind readers about the Bridge, Stanford's 24/7 counseling center staffed by the most dedicated, highly trained students around. They're at (650) 723-3392, and many students find them to be an invaluable resource in dark times.

According to the complaint, Stanford students hospitalized for suicidal ideation or behavior are not informed of their rights guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and are routinely subjected to demeaning, insensitive treatment by Stanford employees, including by an RD who on several occasions went to the hospital while plaintiffs were hospitalized. From one student's account (all student names are pseudonyms):

On February 23, while Jacob was still in the hospital, John Giammalva, a Residence Dean, visited Jacob and told him that he had caused his dormmates psychological harm, and that they were talking about him. Giammalva said that Jacob had been a disruption to the community and it was unfair for Jacob to impose a burden on other students and staff. Giammalva also referred to Stanford’s residence agreement, made Jacob feel he had violated the rules, and threatened Jacob with legal action and a ban from his dormitory.

Jacob felt traumatized by this conversation and requested that hospital staff be present for any future conversations with Giammalva.

From another student's account:

On January 25, 2013, during Winter Quarter, Erik was hospitalized at Stanford Hospital after attempting suicide.

Within twenty-four hours of his admission, Carolus Brown, a Residence Dean, sent Erik a text message that if Erik had met with him, this “incident” would not have happened.

Brown also texted Erik that everyone in his dorm was talking about him. His harmful messages triggered Erik into an anxiety attack.

While he was hospitalized, Giammalva visited Erik to “inform[] [him]...that [he was] referred to the Dean’s Leave of Absence,” and told Erik that he was not allowed on campus while on leave. Gaimmalva admonished that if Erik violated this term, he risked probation or expulsion.

Giammalva also coerced Erik into signing a voluntary leave of absence form. He told Erik that he had not yet been released from the hospital because of his failure to cooperate and sign the form, and that it would be near impossible to return to Stanford without filling out the form.

Several student plaintiffs had their housing privileges suddenly revoked by administrators shortly after being released from the hospital. After being transferred to La Selva Mental Health Services’ inpatient facility, the student who was “traumatized” by Giammalva’s visit to the hospital received a letter from Giammalva banning him from all Stanford dorms and dining halls. The letter cited vague reasons such as a supposed “inability to care for [his] personal safety,” and indicated the student had violated the Fundamental Standard:

The letter further cited to Stanford’s Residence Agreement and Fundamental Standards of Conduct and chastised Jacob for violating those standards by failing to “be considerate of other residents and staff,” “respect the rights of others,” and show “respect for order, morality, [and] personal honor.” The letter mentioned nothing about Jacob’s behavior being connected to or the result of a disability, nor any possible disability-based accommodations.

According to the lawsuit, students hospitalized for suicidal ideation or suicide attempts are regularly accused by ResEd employees — in writing — of being disruptive to their communities, making other students feel uncomfortable, and being an unreasonable burden for dorm staff and housing professionals. According to the accounts provided in the complaint, however, administrators routinely neglect to provide any proof whatsoever for these charges.

Although several students involved in the lawsuit reported being told by Stanford employees that other students were talking about them, or had reported negative things about them to ResEd, no proof was provided for administrators’ claims. After Giammalva told Jacob at the hospital that he had caused his dormmates psychological harm, friends assured Jacob that Giammalva had lied to him. When Jacob pressed another RD for more information about the harm he had supposedly caused to others, she refused to clarify the matter.

Jacob reached out to Residence Dean [Leigh] Thiedeman to seek clarification as to the reasons for his housing hold and received vague responses. She admitted she had not spoken with his friends but claimed that unidentified other people had, and had determined there was an impact on his friends. Thiedeman’s insistence that Jacob likely harmed his friends interfered with his recovery.

In numerous cases, students involved in such cases, as well as their friends and even their psychiatrists, have contacted the relevant Stanford employees, including outgoing Dean of Students Chris Griffith, to complain. Their letters were systematically ignored.

Adding insult to injury, according to the complaint, Stanford “charges students hundreds of dollars in various administrative fees and costs related to their involuntary dismissal; such as for changing their academic schedule and terminating their housing contract.” In one particularly shocking case described in the lawsuit, a student was placed on leave during winter quarter of her freshman year, and upon returning to Stanford the next fall, was promptly evicted for a second time after being sexually assaulted:

When Stanford allowed Emily to return the following Fall Quarter, she was sexually assaulted, which led to her drinking and engaging in self-harm.

Stanford administrators called Emily in to discuss her behavior and how she was being a “distraction.”

Stanford’s counselors determined that Emily’s self-harm was a coping mechanism, rather than suicidality. Stanford’s administrators, however, placed Emily on another leave of absence, claiming that Emily’s self-harm was a “distraction to the community.”

Again, Stanford evicted Emily from on-campus housing, gave her less than three days to clean out and vacate her dormitory, and charged Emily a $450 fee for “terminating” her housing contract.

In order to return to Stanford after a forced leave, plaintiffs claim, students are required to complete an “onerous” series of tasks as a condition of readmission, including granting their private psychiatrists permission to discuss confidential medical information with Stanford employees.

But plaintiffs allege that even once students sign the medical release forms, Stanford routinely disregards psychiatrists’ recommendations for their patients’ mental health treatment, instead forcing students to complete Stanford-selected therapy programs — including, in at least one case, making a student studying abroad in Cape Town complete a program there, against the recommendations of her doctors. (Previously, the complaint states, the director of BOSP’s Cape Town program had told the student she could be sent back to the United States — essentially threatening to deport her from the study-abroad program.)

Perhaps most egregiously, the complaint states that in addition to forcing plaintiffs to grant access to their confidential health information, Stanford employees ordered the students to submit written statements accepting blame for their supposedly disruptive behavior — in essence asking vulnerable students struggling with serious mental health issues to apologize to Stanford for their troubles.

Plaintiffs allege that Stanford’s policies and practices, including the practice of demanding personal statements from struggling students, have caused severe psychological harm to already vulnerable students, alienating them from friends and support systems and likely discouraging other students from seeking help.

The implication is that instead of caring for its students as it claims to do, Stanford treats the most vulnerable among them as a liability, giving them only “vague, incomplete information,” subjecting them to long and complicated administrative processes, and completely disregarding the negative effects that forced eviction, forced leaves of absence, forced stays in Stanford-selected therapy programs, and forced apologies are likely to have on 20-year-olds trying to get an education.

Calling Stanford's treatment of students with mental health disabilities "punitive, illegal, and discriminatory," the plaintiffs in the class-action suit accuse Stanford of denying basic civil rights to students with psychiatric diagnoses, stating that the university’s conduct constitutes "ongoing and continuous violations of the [Americans with Disabilities Act]," in addition to violating the Federal Fair Housing Act and state anti-discrimination laws.

The complaint states that "unless restrained from doing so, Stanford will continue to violate the ADA." Plaintiffs are demanding a permanent injunction “requiring Stanford to modify its policies and procedures to ensure that students with mental health disabilities have nondiscriminatory, full and equal access to academic, housing, health, insurance, and all other facilities, services, and activities provided by Stanford.”
PSA: If you’re a Stanford student affected by this issue, you can get in touch with Disability Rights Advocates, the group that filed the suit, for information on how to join the class-action lawsuit. Contact info here.

Our take: We here at FoHo think it speaks volumes that a group of 20-year-olds who ResEd tried to quietly evict and ignore (presumably in an effort to avoid liability) had to resort to filing a federal lawsuit to have their concerns taken seriously. We sincerely hope this will serve as a badly needed wake-up call for Stanford’s sluggish, far-too-opaque administrative bureaucracy.

It should go without saying that students deserve far, far better than the treatment these undergraduates allege they received at the hands of Stanford employees — not later, not next year, but now. 

Take care of yourselves, and take care of your friends. ❤️

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