In a small series of offices above Ben and Jerry’s in the Student Alumni Union, Dawn
Soufleris works each day to help students who are being eaten away at by troubles.
The causes vary from person to person; it could be stress from school, factors at home
or even latent mental illness. If the student is overwhelmed and their problems go
unnoticed, depression, violence and even suicide are very real possibilities.
As aassistant vice president for Student Affairs and chair of the Student
Behavior Consultation Team, Soufleris is responsible for overseeing all
student wellness and counseling services on campus. After a troubled
student is identified and sent to counselors, she must decide, “Should
that student stay at RIT? Or should they go get the help they need?”
If RIT’s counselors aren’t enough to help the person, they may ask the
student to take a leave of absence until they receive professional care
or the problem has been resolved. Due to a recent change of federal
policy, however, her team may no longer be the ones who decide if a
student needs to leave.
RIT may soon be forced to change its current policy to comply with
changes to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Right now,
Title II permits public universities to force students to take a leave of
absence if they are displaying any type of behavior deemed a “direct
threat to themselves or others.” The change removes the “harmful to
themselves” portion of the law, meaning that such intervening action
can only be taken if a student poses a threat to the people around
them. It also requires that, in the event a student displays destructive
behavior, their case be handled through the university’s judicial
system — that is, through a behavioral conduct hearing.
Federal lawmakers agreed to the change after reports that some
universities were using the bill to avoid counseling students who
showed mild self-harming or suicidal tendencies. Instead, the students
would be sent home immediately to remove the possibility of danger
resulting from the student’s continued presence on campus.
As a private university, RIT is not required to comply with most
changes to Title II. The university can be forced to change its practices
only if the Department of Justice decides that the change extends to
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — an act which deals
with discrimination against persons with disabilities. This specifically
includes private institutions which receive federal funding. RIT does
receive funding from the government, and NTID in particular is
federally funded for $65 million of its $89 million annual budget.
RIT hasn’t received any orders yet, however, so it remains to be seen
whether or not any changes will actually be made. In anticipation
of an order, Soufleris speculates that some universities will start
implementing changes anyway. It would not be the first time such an
order was made; as early as last year, RIT was forced to modify its
practices in accordance with changes to federal laws regarding how
universities handle cases of sexual assault.
Soufleris agrees that there isn’t one perfect system to solve
everyone’s problems, but she does not feel that the recent policy
change will improve the existing system. The new conduct hearing
requirement means that a person who would once be asked to leave
as a patient with a mental health referal may be forced to leave with
a disciplinary record.
Soufleris stresses that no change to RIT has yet been made, and
nothing may be needed. In her words, however, “One person can affect
100,” and providing help to one person in need of help can keep others
safe and healthy. Until they are directed otherwise, her office will
continue doing what they always have: Helping students whose friends
and family notice something that isn’t quite right with the person they