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April 29, 2007

UNC brands anorexic as campus threat

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, the University of Northern Colorado published the photographs of 24 students who had been barred from campus for "honor code" infractions ranging from alleged violent crime to anorexia

One of the students whose picture was splashed on the UNC police department website was Brittany Bethel, who was been banned from UNC after collapsing on campus from anorexia nervosa:

Bethel is on UNC's banned student list. The list of names and pictures were posted on the site this week. The school says it is a response to the shootings at Virginia Tech University, but it admits not everyone on the list is a potential danger.

"It is associated with the shooting at Virginia Tech, so it's being implied that the people on it are somehow a danger to someone else and I am in no way a threat to anyone else," she said. [9News]

There are so many civil liberties issues here, it's hard to know where to start.

The university should not be publicly identifying people as threats without overwhelming evidence that they are a danger to the community. It might make sense to publish photographs of students who had, say, outstanding warrants for their arrests, or restraining orders barring them from campus. Short of that, the university has no business pinning scarlet letters on its students.

Imagine how that mugshot page would look to a prospective employer. Branding someone with the stigma of school shootings is no joke, especially the state where the Columbine shootings happened. People on the UNC list might even become the targets of harassment themselves.

It's doubly shocking that the university knowingly published the photographs of students who weren't deemed threats to anyone but themselves.

How dare the University of Northern Colorado stigmatize an woman suffering from a serious medical condition? How was it even legal to bar her from campus for being sick in the first place?

To publicly brand her as a threat heaps insult on injury.

UNC should immediately reinstate Ms. Bethel and compensate her for the ordeal she has endured.

[HT: Body Impolitic]


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The justification is just creepy:

Bethel says she was working at the UNC recreation center in September when she collapsed from complications from an eating disorder. She says she was then diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa.

As a result, she says she was suspended from the university because she was considered a threat to herself which breaks the school's honor code of conduct.

It states that a violation includes, "Conduct which threatens or endangers the health, safety, or welfare of any person or university property."

The interpretation of "any person" includes being a danger to one's self.

Being anorexic is a violation of the honor code!

How fucked-up is that?

I don't even have the energy to rant about this. Let me just answer my own question by saying: very fucked-up.

I think you have this wrong.

1. If the college deems people "persona non grata," there has to be a way of enforcing that judgment. I can't see how you do that except by publication of some sort.

2. I assume that the college particularly wants to keep some subset of the people (specifically, some subset of the men) of campus. Justifying someone's inclusion in that subset is going to require some process and some higher standard of justification. That's a pain, and that's going to do more harm to people included in that group as banning a larger, more amorphously dangerous, group.

3. I could see banning someone from a campus because the campus life was, for whatever reason, unhealthy for her. It seems no different from banning an alcoholic from a bar.

It's odd to put this proviso in the honor code. There's nothing dishonorable about suffering from a psychiatric condition.

I disagree that it's necessary to publish the names of students who are barred from campus, especially when the publication comes with the implication that they are dangerous to the campus community.

School suspensions typically are handled by informing the student and the faculty who deal with them. They aren't enforced by broad-based social shunning.

I don't like the the idea that the school, as opposed to the patient and her doctors, should decide how school is affecting her health or whether she's well enough to be there.

The school should only step in if a student is posing a threat to others.

Sorry Tim, some would call you wrong.

Somewhere in the school's bureaucracy, a person made a decision to further stigmatize this unfortunate woman by putting her on a list of undesirables.

I wonder if that person's decision would have been different had Ms. Bethel been his or her daughter.

I think it's a simple case of unfeeling, uncaring, mindless application of an arbitrary and poorly-defined rule of conduct.

Hope she sues them into oblivion.

And I thought we were going a little overboard when they ordered us to put he flag at half mast over the Virginia Tech thingat the federal facility where I work. Cho was a homicidal freak of a nature so vanishingly rare that practically no one realistically has to waste time worrying about another such freak gunning them down. Just because someone on any particular campus is odd or even crazy, hardly warrants wetting our collective pants.
More post-9/11 mass hysteria.

I'm not a lawyer but I think of two ways she might be able to sue:

a) Discrimination based on a disability is barred by federal statute, and she could say that anorexia is a disability.

b) If the state school suspended her without being able to cite a specific rule she broke, that may violate the "due process" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

It's odd to put this proviso in the honor code.

It's a formalism. I assume the specific portion used to justify the suspension is a catch-all. I very much doubt anyone's mind is changed about whether or not anorexia is dishonorable by the use of that portion to justify suspension.

especially when the publication comes with the implication that they are dangerous to the campus community.

Explicitly disclaimed by the university. For whatever that's worth.

School suspensions typically are handled by informing the student and the faculty who deal with them

So we're really talking about the breadth of publication. Again, I assume there was some man on that list that is--to use the technical term--a total psycho, and that man was the reason for the wide publication. Rather than attempt to justify a more stigmatizing judgment--total psycho--the school elected to hide him in a broad group of the previously judged. That seems defensible to me, if not, perhaps, the ideal manner of handling things.

I don't like the the idea that the school, as opposed to the patient and her doctors, should decide how school is affecting her health or whether she's well enough to be there.

Mmm. I cannot see why the school's decision to suspend people should be very circumscribed in the absence of evidence of bad intent. At a minimum, I can imagine that school worries about liability might motivate decisions to remove students who have shown themselves to be more likely to harm themselves. More kindly, the school might believe that it's not well-equipped to give such a student the support she needs. That's a judgment the school's best placed to understand. Furthermore, there's a reference to her medical history in the linked story--admittedly, one that says the school won't discuss it--so it's not clear to me that they weren't acting in concert with her doctor in some fashion.

That seems defensible to me, if not, perhaps, the ideal manner of handling things.

Indefensible. This girl is already going through hell because of her self-image, and now UNC just made things worse. If they wanted to "hide" someone, they should have been very careful to "hide" him in a crowd of people who weren't already so damn fragile.

SomeCallYouTim, you say that the implication that the people listed by the school are dangerous is "explicitly disclaimed by the university," and in the next breath you infer that "... there was some man on that list that is--to use the technical term--a total psycho, and that man was the reason for the wide publication."

IOW, we're intended to infer that one of them's a total psycho ("the reason for the wide publication"), but the school more or less disclaims the implication (whyever would they do that), so no harm, no foul?

True, the page of photos has WeaselWording to the effect that the people listed there may or may not be dangerous, and may or may not have ever even been affiliated with the school -- is that what you meant by "explicitly disclaimed"? -- but according to one of the linked stories, "[t]he school says [the page of photos] is a response to the shootings at Virginia Tech University."

The campus police need to know who's PNG. Gatekeepers of various kinds need to know too. But posting the names and photos, in response to the shootings at VT, without any specifics, for the whole world to see ... I understand why you inferred that there's a "total psycho" on the list. Could be any of 'em ... there's nothing to say otherwise.

That's not a reasonable thing for the school to do, IMO.

With kind regards,
Dog, etc.
searching for home

This case illustrates some of the problems with catch-all persona non grata lists. I don't think schools should have such broad categories for banning people.

Yes, it's work to evaluate the evidence and make responsible decisions about who is and isn't allowed on campus. Yes, it's a pain to amass evidence to justify the decision to put someone's name and picture on a potentially reputation-destroying list.

The ostensible purpose of the list was to protect the community from harm. The school knew perfectly well that the Bethel wasn't a danger to the community, yet they included her picture in the campus rogues' gallery. Someone who clicked through to the page from the school's Va-Tech statement would have no way to know that she was suspended for her own good.

There's enough stigma attached to psychiatric conditions without lumping medical suspensions in with wanted criminals.

Tim, you're arguing that a medical suspension might be justified for the well-being of the student. I'm very uncomfortable with universities making medical decisions for students' "own good." However,if the administration feels it absolutely must step in, it should act with the greatest possible tact and sensitivity. UNC isn't acting like it cares about Bethel's feelings at all.

The university is responsible for promoting safety on campus. By making vague insinuations about purportedly dangerous individuals, the university may be putting those people at risk of retaliation or ostracism. This isn't a decision to be taken lightly.

Here's the school's code of conduct. And here's a story on Bethel that ran before this controversy began.

This is par for the course at UNC, which I'm embarrassed to say is my alma mater. The administration can't seem to make a decision without engaging in deep doublethink. Look at what it told the Denver Post:

The page doesn't include any information about why each individual is banned, but says their "behavior is not appropriate" for campus. Spokesman Nate Haas said privacy guidelines forbid being more specific.

What really amazing is that the most dangerous people on campus are not the loners and losers. They're the spoiled and pampered. The fraternity culture at UNC is deeply twisted, enabling torture, rape and the occasional manslaughter.

When I was there the baseball team decided to haze its newest members by waking them up at 2 a.m and forcing them run bases through a gauntlet of bat-wielding teammates and slide into homeplate in their underwear. This bullshit was allowed to continue under the administration' implied blessing until one kid's neck was broken, paralyzing him for life.

Sven -

Thanks for the list.

I doubt that the intent was to ban anorexics when this was written.

"Conduct which threatens or endangers the health, safety, or welfare of any person on University-owned or controlled property at University-sponsored or supervised functions or at functions or facilities of recognized student organizations."

Maybe she could sue on the grounds that intent of the code isn't being followed.

This is plain discrimination and invasion of privacy. Why should the University have access to information from her medical records? Why should her illness bar her from receiving an education?

The "reasoning" is that she's a danger to herself, and therefore doesn't recognize the value of other's lives. Like I said, deep doublethink.

One of the other people on the list, Corinne Sanchez, was a janitor who was fired for missing too much work (she says it was health related). She called up her supervisor and said "karma's going to kick your butt."

A regular Charlie Manson, there.

Oh, and how about the high school swimming coach who told Bethel that she "needed to lose some of her baby fat."

Sounds like a clear and present danger to student health. I wonder if he's still allowed on campus.


Is there an article with that swimming coach quote?

It was inappropriate for UNC to publish this list. It was a bad decision and stigmatized a young woman with a serious mental condition.
However, the idea that UNC had no right to bar her from campus is ridiculous. They have a responsibility to protect their students, but no right to force treatment. If she were to (God forbid) die or be seriously injured from her condition, they would be held responsible. Removing these people from campus is their last resort.
Universities aren't public parks. They're not even like public primary schools. They are selective and exclusionary. Nobody has a *right* to a public university education. They merely have a right to not be unfairly discriminated against. If the university determines her to be a danger to herself, they are within their rights to remove her.
Keep in mind how twisted some of our laws are here - they're responsible for her like a parent, but they can't force treatment, they can't see her health records, they can't even notify her parents! What options do they have? At least by sending these kids home they have a shot at getting help.
You might feel you have a right to kill yourself, but nobody has the obligation to let you do it in front of them, helpless to intervene.

Yeah, it's in that Greeley Tribune story I linked earlier. I shouldn't have put it in quotes, because it wasn't that way in the story:

During her freshman year in high school, Brittany became more focused on swimming. She'd dropped other sports and also stopped hanging out with many of her childhood friends, instead socializing with the swim team who shared her interests. Her coach, a young man who all the girls looked up to, told Brittany she needed to lose some of her baby fat.

Kevin Drum predicted the VA Tech shootings would be invoked to justify crackdowns on the weird. An anorexic can seem as weird and threatening as a medieval Jew, leper, madman or pariah du jour to would-be crackers-down.

If Bethel had leukemia, the school wouldn't bar her from campus if she thought she was well enough to attend.

If she had a congenital heart condition, the school wouldn't kick her out--even if she was at risk of collapsing.

Bethel is currently in recovery, according to media reports. So, she's not refusing treatment. Even assuming she shouldn't be enrolled in her condition, I don't know why they think they need to ban her from campus completely.

   It might be their policy to reinstate after treatment is complete. I'm not defending UNC specifically, just the concept of removing students from campus.
   And I disagree that no school would bar her for having leukemia if they thought she was neglecting proper treatment.
   I think the overriding concern here for UNC is their legal liability. Look at the case of Elizabeth Shin, whose parents sued MIT for $27 million when she committed suicide. I can't blame UNC for wanting to protect itself. But I don't know the answer as to how schools can protect their students.

Phew... for a second there I thought y'all were talking about my alma mater, the *real* UNC.

Scott -

Can you cite one case in which a university was successfully sued because a student died of anorexia?

the idea that UNC had no right to bar her from campus is ridiculous.

I'm not arguing the school had no right to expel her (as the Tribune article notes, UNC did try to get her help which at the time she refused). But it's beyond moronic to label her as a threat to public safety and put out an APB. There's zero justification for that.

She has an illness, one that ironically was in all likelihood sparked by social stigma. Stamping persona non grata on her forehead is as stupid as that coach telling her to lose baby fat.

My position is that a state university doesn't have the right to expel her.

The state needs to serve both healthy people and unhealthy people. She isn't a threat to anyone but herself.

If they inform her parents that she had a heart attack apparently from anorexia, and she later dies on campus, the parents could theoretically sue but they wouldn't have a strong case.

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