Thursday, August 22

Editorial: UCLA cannot allow itself to become less accommodating of neurodiversity


Universities are endowed with many responsibilities to their communities. As vanguards for advanced knowledge, institutions like UCLA are charged with providing a safe and inclusive learning environment.

The California Supreme Court, however, has opened the gates for universities to cross the line between protecting students and marginalizing those requiring mental health services.

Almost nine years ago, Katherine Rosen, a UCLA undergraduate, was stabbed during a lab by Damon Thompson, a fellow student. She proceeded to sue the University of California for negligence, arguing Thompson’s mental health record was questionable enough to have had him banned from university housing. UCLA knew Thompson suffered from paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations, and that he had told a teaching assistant he believed Rosen was disrespecting him.

A state court ruled in 2015 that the university is not liable for students’ safety. Last week, however, the California Supreme Court determined otherwise, stating California universities have a special relationship with their students and a duty to protect them from foreseeable violence.

If courts decide to classify Rosen’s life-threatening injuries as the result of “foreseeable violence” in her lawsuit, the way UCLA handles mental health care is in serious risk. As much as Rosen should be compensated for her injuries, accommodating a student with a mental illness should not be considered a liability. To penalize universities like UCLA for treating a student like Thompson would be to marginalize these students without any measurable benefit to campus safety.

The fact is Thompson’s attack on Rosen was more random than predictable. University administrators had been monitoring Thompson at the time and campus doctors did not believe he met the criteria to be forced into a psychiatric hospital – something California only allows should patients show suicidal tendencies or plans to harm others.

Courts must ask the question: If students in Thompson’s condition are red flags for violent behavior, what must the university do with them?

A court ruling in favor of Rosen quickly becomes a slippery slope. The university already assesses whether students are a danger to themselves or to those around them. Even in these cases, it must tread carefully to not overstep students’ academic freedoms.

When universities like UCLA start to consider hallucinations and paranoia as red flags for future violent behavior, they must recalibrate how to treats students’ mental health entirely. In a world in which UCLA is liable for students who express those symptoms, which are not wholly treatable, the university can neither accommodate neurodiversity nor positive mental health programs. It would have to become more defensive in the way it provides resources, if at all, for fear of litigation against it.

Laws exist to protect students with disabilities, and it’s easy to believe a middle road can be carved out between accommodating students who are neurodivergent and protecting other students from them. But this logic relies on the stereotype that people with mental illnesses are inherently prone to violence. While Thompson’s mental health may have played a role in how he perceived and reacted to Rosen, it does not mean everyone who experiences similar symptoms will behave the same.

The way we look at violence on school campuses has changed drastically from when Rosen was attacked. It’s time we stop considering mental health a natural culprit for violence.

This doesn’t mean campus safety shouldn’t be of paramount concern for universities – only that it shouldn’t come at the cost of marginalizing those with mental health conditions.

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  • Alexandra

    Dear Daily Bruin,

    I think you have a typo:

    “Laws exist to protect students with disabilities, and it’s easy to believe a middle road can be carved out between accommodating students who are >>>neurodivergent<<< and protecting other students from them."

  • form

    I have those experiences (I do NOT call them “symptoms”.), and I’m not violent. And I go broke and sleepless for my degree, just like everyone else does. No way should I be demonized as a “threat”, just because I’m Mad.

    • Man with Axe

      You seem to be conflating people who genuinely are a threat to others because of their mental illness (the Colorado movie theater shooter, the Arizona congresswoman shooter, the Virginia Tech shooter, the Sandy Hook shooter, the Virginia newswoman shooter, the Family Research Council shooter, the Nickel Mines Amish girl shooter, and others) with people who have a mental illness but are not necessarily a danger to themselves and others. These are two very different groups and society cannot treat them as if they are the same.

  • Man with Axe

    What if this guy had killed 17 of his fellow students instead of just stabbing one girl? I suppose we’d be talking about guns instead of mental illness (or neurodiversity).

  • Colleen Malone

    As the mother and long time advocate for a son with paranoid schizophrenia, and one who has in the past accessed these wonderful campus policies of assiting disabled students, I believe the trgedy here is the ineptitude of the psychiatric community. There needs to be a better appplication of clinical diagnostic standards for levels of paranoia, levels of psychosis, and accountability within the treatment community. Rather than ignoring again and again obvious syptoms of acute mental disorder, these patients are turned back on the streets. Why should any legal repercussions be, then, focused not on the university who failed to intervene but on the health care professionals who failed to adequately diagnose and treat this student? The student/patient would be well served by long term treatment and care, even if involuntary. At least until it could be ascertained that the patient has been made aware of his or her own disorder, and taught how best to avoid it getting out of control. Currently, there is very litttle reliable treatment or followup by the mental health community centers or clinics, which we all rely upon to screen and help patients and their communities.

    • form

      Nope, Colleen. If you want to discard your son, you’re free to do that. If the school wants to discard a student, it is mostly free to do that (ADA or not, schools can basically expel whomever they want to. If you’re Mad, you’re pretty much burdened with having to stay “in the closet” until you graduate.) That’s your option for getting rid of a Mad person. Your one and only option. Freedom is an INALIENABLE right, not a “privilege” that a school or a Munchausen can take from us.

  • Janet Hays

    Lots of people with serious mental illness live in communities with us. Sadly, without treatment, regular access to hospitals, medications, programs and services to allow a person to manage their symptoms, the group (as a whole) are more likely to display violent tendencies.
    Rather than renaming the problem or denying the existence of serious mental illness, the collective commons should be invested in making every attempt to understand the disease and help people succeed at what ever point they enter the system. There are many ways institutions, the community and the student body can help those who, by no fault of their own, suffer with mental diseases.
    Rather than discarding a person at their time of greatest need, we can intervene to help get them back on track. Whether that be voluntary or involuntary help.
    The Treatment Advocacy Center is a great organization invested in removing legal and other barriers to care that I refer to a lot.
    The consequences of inaction almost always results in homelessness, incarceration and death.
    You would think that institutes of higher learning more would have the good sense to figure that out. It certainly does nothing to inspire confidence that anything will ever change for our loved ones – who are possibly the most vulnerable to receive or commit violence – when the smartest guys in the room can’t figure it out.
    SMDH :’(

    • form

      Real help is NEVER “involuntary” Janet. Would you like me to assault you for not sleeping enough, not exercising enough, or not moderating your meals? Would that feel “helpful” to you? I think not.

  • letsbrainstorm

    The two students were undergraduate researchers in the same lab—same faculty mentor—ie a faculty mentor generally has less than a handful of students at any given academic quarter.

    They knew each other more than what Rosen led the court (as well as what the news and detective at the time) to believe.