Student files several complaints with university for lack of anonymity

Jackson Peebles. Courtesy Photo

Christina Cantero

News Reporter

One WMU student is now filing several complaints against the university for allegedly overstepping their power and sharing medical information to university officials who, according to the student, did not have the right to receive or distribute this information.

Jackson Peebles, who filed the complaints with help from Washington D.C./civil rights lawyer Karen Bower, first experienced issues when he was "involuntarily withdrawn" from the university after he was hospitalized for major depression and passive suicidal ideation.

Nicholas Wikar is another student who recently brought attention to the university's privacy policy and how faculty and staff have executed these policies. Wikar was also the author of a resolution that passed in the Western Student Association (WSA) senate on Wed., April 3 that aims to further protect the privacy of students.

When Peebles came back to campus after a week in the hospital, he was not able to re-enter his classes or set his foot on university grounds according to an e-mail Peebles received from Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, Suzie Nagel.

"The university really blindsided me and told me I could not come back unless I came up with documentation that said it was safe for me to return to school, which I thought was fair," Peebles said. "Later they ordered me to release my entire medical history, which I refused, and it was then implied that I would be suspended in the long term if I didn't provide them with this information."

Peebles said he was involuntarily withdrawn from the university and from his dorm room in French Hall because he was in violation of the WMU Student Conduct Code, Article VI, Section F.2, which reads  "a) Causing physical harm to self or others."

Peebles confirms that he never caused any physical harm to himself or any other student. "If I was a legitimate threat, doctors would not have written a letter [to the university] saying I was good to go back to school," Peebles said. "I think [the university] took the position "better safe than sorry," [by withdrawing me]."

Peebles is filing one Office of Civil Rights complaint against the university, one American Psychological Association complaint against a Sindecuse Health Center doctor and two complaints against the university and Sindecuse Health Center through the Department of Regulatory and Licensing Affairs. All are currently under an open investigation, according to Peebles.

"Doctors know better. They are trained in privacy law," said Peebles, who allege that Sindecuse Health Center released his medical information without his consent. "I have heard of doctors who got in trouble for sending get well cards. I feel like they were pushed by someone else."

Peebles alleges that there has been a violation of his rights under Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which is one of the policies the university follows according to Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs Suzie Nagel. Peebles also alleges that the university violated his rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Nagel was not willing to speak on the case, but said the university evaluates each student on a case-by-case basis.

"It's very important that we follow our policies, and FERPA, and that we make decisions with most integrity and carefulness as we can, and I think it's important for us to follow those policies that helps us determine what can and cannot be shared," said Nagel.

Nagel added that there is a clause in FERPA that indicates that if an institution believes that other parties in the university have a need to know about a particular issue, the administration can make those decisions on a case-by-case basis.

"We are very careful with that information," said Nagel. University Registrar, Carrie Cumming, was out of the office for the week when reporter contacted the office for more information on FERPA.

According to the website of the Office of the Registrar, a student's information may be disclosed without the students consent if the university personnel have a "legitimate education interest," to accrediting organizations, to comply with a judicial order or in a health or safety emergency.

In one of the emails Peebles received from Nagel, Peebles pointed out that the email was also sent to the Department of Public Safety and Residence Life, which Peebles experienced as uncomfortable and wrong. Peebles said the situation did not make him want to leave the university, but fight for policy change.

"As a Bronco, I just want to see policy change. It could have happened at a different school too," said Peebles. "But I lost a lot of money, trust, and my confidentiality because of this [situation]."

Peebles added that if he was able to return to school after he returned from the hospital earlier this year, he would have been able to stay in the majority of his classes. He is currently enrolled in two classes, and does not live on campus anymore.

"I'm OK with the information being released now, but I wasn't at the time," Peebles said. "I want other students to know."

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