A Princeton University undergraduate who was asked to leave school after he attempted suicide has brought a federal court suit charging disability discrimination.
The freshman, identified as W.P., took 20 tablets of antidepressant drug Trazodone while alone in his dormitory room on Feb. 25, 2012. He then sought help at the campus health center. While he was hospitalized, the university notified him he was barred from returning to his dorm room, attending classes or setting foot on campus, according to the suit filed Wednesday in Trenton.
W.P. claims school officials told him that the “universal outcome” in circumstances like his was voluntary withdrawal and that failure to comply would result in ouster for having missed two weeks of classes, which would be noted on his transcript as a dismissal and make him ineligible for a refund of his tuition or room and board payments.
W.P. was readmitted as a sophomore in the spring of 2013 after complying with the university’s dictates, including attendance at weekly psychotherapy sessions and completion of a psychological evaluation.
The suit charges the university denied him a reasonable accommodation of his disability after the incident and discriminated on the basis of disability by imposing conditions on his return that were more onerous than for students who leave for reasons of physical illness.
The 27-page complaint includes counts under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
It seeks compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees and costs and injunctive relief against further discrimination.
Besides Princeton University, the suit names as defendants Shirley Tilghman, who was president of the university until July 2013, and six other administrators.
W.P., who filed the suit pro se, claims Princeton’s primary concern was not his well-being but to protect itself from adverse publicity.
After his hospitalization, doctors said W.P. did not pose an imminent threat to himself or others, and he wanted to return to school while receiving outpatient mental health treatment, but was denied permission, he says. Also denied was his proposal to live off-campus and carry a part-time academic schedule while undergoing intensive therapy.
W.P. says his mother asked school officials unsuccessfully if his classes could be recorded or transcribed while he appealed their decision, so he could keep up with his studies.
Although he was ultimately readmitted, W.P.’s academic record reflects a one-year gap that he will be forced to explain. “As the direct result of the defendants’ actions he had experienced extreme embarrassment, continuing stress and mental anguish, as well as out-of-pocket expenses, foregone wages and reputational injury,” the suit says.
W.P. also filed a brief seeking permission to proceed anonymously, citing his diagnosis with “major depressive disorder, and/or bipolar disorder, Type II.” The public’s general interest in knowing the identity of litigants is outweighed by the interest in “preserving the willingness of those alleging discrimination on the basis of mental disability to come forward,” his brief said.
A Princeton University spokesman, Martin Mbugua, declines to discuss pending litigation. He adds that it is “important to note that whenever issues of health and well-being arise, many members of Princeton University’s counseling center, health services, dean of undergraduate students’ office, and a number of other offices spend many hours working with students and their families. their actions and decisions are driven by deep concern for the affected student and all other students.”
Although appearing pro se in the current suit, W.P. was represented by the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in a 2012 complaint to the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, which was dismissed last January. The center’s legal director, Ira Burnim, who worked on W.P.’s case, did not return a call.
The Bazelon Center works to advance the rights of persons with mental disabilities At press time, Clay Braswell, a spokesman, was checking into whether the center is involved in the current suit.
Mbugua notes that the Department of Education, in dismissing W.P.’s complaint, “neither criticized the judgments made or actions taken by the university.” In response to W.P.’s appeal, the federal agency reopened one of his four claims and the matter is pending, Mbugua says.
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