How A College Student's Refusal To Get A Psychiatric Evaluation Enabled The School To Expel Her
Jenna Portnoy July 26, 2006
As Lorraine Land sees it, psychology is all about empathizing with others.
So when a class discussion turned into a heated discourse about race, she said what was on her mind, even though she suspected her Chestnut Hill College professor would say Land led a charmed life. She could accept being unpopular; she could not accept what happened next.
Although Land got all A's and B's and the highest grade in her class on a test that mirrors a licensing exam for psychologists, had hands-on experience and was nearly finished with her degree, the college required that she undergo a "psychological evaluation."
HEAD CASE: Though a court backed Chestnut Hill College's right to force Lorraine Land to get checked out by a psychiatrist, the former student says she has no choice but to publicly tell her story. : Michael T. Regan
"What was done to me was outright wrong," says Land, whose pink bag is stuffed with papers chronicling her ordeal. "I did an excellent job and I got kicked out because one professor didn't like me."
Land took the college to court, but according to her attorney, the law was on Chestnut Hill College's side since it is a private school. While Land says her civil liberties were violated, rules of state, like the constitutional guarantee of free speech, do not apply to students in private schools, which are mostly funded by tuition and donations. Public schools get cash from the government and have to adhere to the government's laws. In other words, if a private school wants a student to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, the student had better do so.
"I believe that both public and private institutions should be held to the same standards," says Land's attorney, Josh Beisker. However, he says, students sacrifice some rights when they enter a private school and agree to adhere to the school's guidelines.
"If I would have gone to Penn State or Temple," Land says, "this would never have happened."
Land, 33, and living in Brewerytown, was drawn to Chestnut Hill College, a Catholic school on Germantown Avenue just east of the Montgomery County line with fewer than 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students, because it seemed flexible.
She started working on her doctorate in fall 2002 and had no major problems until October 2004, when she told psychology professor Cheryll Rothery-Jackson about an experience she had with clients of different socioeconomic backgrounds while doing a practicum at Friends Hospital in the Northeast.
"Really, what I said was not harmful," says Land, who has blond hair and wears a bubble-gum-pink outfit complete with a sparkly headband. "I acknowledged as a white woman, I'm sure I've had privileges; that doesn't mean I'm privileged. I'm not a Paris Hilton."
Rothery-Jackson, who is black, did not chastise Land for her remarks, but Land says, "From that point on, she went after me." (Rothery-Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.)
A few weeks later, Land received a letter from the psychology faculty saying she was argumentative, lacked insight and clinical experience and needed to control her tone. Then, the day before Thanksgiving, she received a review noting "serious concerns" in every aspect of her training. She submitted ways to improve, but the school was not satisfied.
During this time, Land says, Rothery-Jackson and another professor, Scott Browning, violated her trust by calling Friends Hospital to ask colleagues how she was progressing.
Finally, on Feb. 25, 2005, Browning told Land, who was already in therapy for anxiety, that she needed to undergo a psychological evaluation. Stress then led Land to request a break from her practicum. Friends Hospital agreed, but the college faculty never approved the change and failed Land in the course.
The school then dismissed her due to the failing grade and her reluctance to undergo an evaluation.
The college issued a statement saying the evaluation request was "fair and reasonable" and "made by the senior members of the department." It also says that an evaluation is "permitted by the American Psychological Association (APA) when a doctoral program has concerns regarding the student's progress."
Pam Willenz, APA public affairs manager, agrees. "In the case of students preparing for professional practice," she says, "it may make sense in some instances for [an evaluation] to occur."
The courts backed that stance as well. When Land's attorney asked a county judge to reverse the college's evaluation request, the motion was denied. She also lost an internal Chestnut Hill College appeal.
"Even the court wished that they could allow [Land] to remain in the program," says Beisker, "but private schools have different guidelines. If this were a public school, I'm confident she would still be enrolled."
Land now attends Capella University, an online college through which she met an attorney in California who plans to use her story as a case study on mental-health issues of people undergoing litigation. The battle left her $13,000 in the hole and mistrustful of professors. It also left her eager to speak publicly about what happened to her.
"If I don't talk about this experience," Land says, "they would have won."