Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 2, 2022

Students claim discrimination led to their dismissal from School of Education Clinical Mental Health Counseling program

By MOLLY GAHAGEN and ROMY KOO | March 10, 2022

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Mental health counselors generally espouse the value of compassion. However,  several students dismissed from the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at the School of Education have raised concerns that discrimination on the basis of their disability and/or minority statuses contributed to their dismissals from the program. 

The Clinical Mental Health Counseling program is offered as a concentration in the Master of Science in Counseling program. The program requires two and a half to five years for completion. At the time that the students were enrolled in the program, they were required to finish 48 to 60 credits and participate in a 600-hour internship to graduate.

In interviews with The News-Letter, these students claimed that University policies prevented them from completing their Candidate Improvement Plan (CIPs) and program requirements due to University officials’ inflexibility, despite many of them having documented disabilities and expressing their inability to complete the requirements. 

Many of the dismissed students highlighted that upon being accepted to other programs, they have only been able to transfer credits from three of the courses they took at Hopkins. This has prevented many from continuing their education, as they are unable to afford the time or cost of doing so.

Katie

Katie Anderson was three courses away from finishing her degree when she was dismissed.

“I’m a student with disabilities. I had those documented with the school. Ever since I started receiving accommodations, Hopkins implemented a Candidate Improvement Plan for me,” she said. “Basically, that made it stricter for me than other students.”

CIPs are written by advisors after students perform at an unsatisfactory standard, resulting in placement on academic probation, to present goals that will bring students back to good academic standings. Those who do not meet the goals set out by a CIP are dismissed from the program.

During her internship, Anderson described working with COVID-19-positive patients even though she was not supposed to under the University’s safety mandates. Despite the University’s policy against this, she says she was required to continue or face an incomplete grading annotation.

She explained that because she had turned in late assignments and received incomplete markings due to her disabilities, her CIP did not allow her to take another incomplete for any reason.

Although the site had precautions in place and would have taken no issue with her taking time off, she did a session with a client who tested positive. According to her, other interns at the same site were permitted to take time off due to the COVID-19 outbreaks at the site.

“Hopkins basically took no responsibility for checking on my safety at my internship site,” she said. “They were well aware there were positive COVID-19 cases at the site because there was another intern on my same unit from Hopkins, who was allowed to take over a month off from working face-to-face with clients, whereas I was not allowed to take time off because of my CIP.”

Anderson explained why the Hopkins policy that prohibited students from working with COVID-19-positive individuals was not implemented in her situation.

“Even though I had been sending emails to [Sterling] Travis, my advisor and University internship supervisor, that there were outbreaks in my unit, the responsibility was on me to go above his head and contact somebody in a higher position to let them know,” she said. “I guess it’s just because Hopkins placed the sole responsibility on me. I didn’t jump through all of that red tape to let the highest person know that there were outbreaks at my site.”

Anderson said that her site supervisor gave her a great evaluation, Despite this, because her supervisor turned it in late, Travis, who also wrote her CIP, graded it as a zero. She attributed her dismissal to her evaluation being turned in late.

Travis served as a professor and advisor to Anderson, as well as her University internship supervisor, which she feels created a situation with a lack of checks and balances or oversight in her academics. 

“He instead gave me a zero for my evaluation due to lateness and failed me in my internship course, even though I completed my entire internship,” she said. “Due to these failing grades, I was dismissed from the program.”

Anderson explained that her site supervisor wrote a letter to advocate for her, saying that the advisor never had a school not accept her evaluation of a student. 

“I can't help but wonder to what extent my dismissal was determined before I officially failed these courses. If you receive two failing grades, you fail the program. In the same semester, I failed another course,” she said. “I have reason to believe that my advisor communicated with that professor that although she was making exceptions for some other students and letting them turn in things late, not to let me turn anything in late.”

Anderson said the syllabus stated that points would be taken off for late assignments, but she was not allowed to turn them in and received zeros for all of them. Anderson’s CIP includes how her disability accommodations could be used. Although she qualified for disability accommodations, her CIP stated she could not ask to use these accommodations past Sept. 11. 

She feels this treatment was unjust, especially considering she had to work in an environment with COVID-19.

“This was in spite of the fact that I was forced to intern that semester in an environment with active COVID-19 outbreaks,” she said. “Other students were not forced to do so because it was in fact against the program's policy.”

Anderson described how she sees the disability accommodations at the University as limited, a view she claims is echoed by her lawyer, who specializes in education.

She also noted that the School of Education is not covered by the Graduate Representative Organization, which represents graduate student interests and communicates with administration, and feels that it lacks support systems for students with disabilities.

She views the faculty and University culture as a contributing factor in the failings.

“I definitely think there’s something awry with the culture among faculty in the Counseling program. Maybe it’s the way that the policies are written; they’re very, very subjective,” she said.

Anderson described themes she noticed in her case and others.

“There’s also these buzzwords we’ve noticed that are thrown around to justify any decision a faculty member might want to make,” she said. “‘Gatekeeping’ is a big one. Faculty members are the gatekeepers, so if they make a decision, they’re being gatekeepers for the field; they’re just watching out for everybody. But nobody’s gatekeeping the gatekeepers.”

Anderson explained that the School of Education won’t override a faculty member's academic judgment. If a student is allowed to turn something in late and another is not, that’s their academic judgment, and the policy is that the University won’t override that.

“It was a horrible and cold process,” she said. “It was just a complete lack of compassion for everything I had gone through that semester... Faculty have the right to grade late assignments as zero no matter what, even if they didn’t do that for other students and even if it goes against the course syllabus.”

Anderson feels the University’s prestige factors into this decision.

“Sometimes I think if this were any other school besides this elite university that has so much power, we just wouldn’t be in this boat. There’s a little bit of an inferiority complex among the Counseling program,” she said. “It’s counseling rather than psychology, and there’s stereotypes involved with that. It was not on the Hopkins campus; most of the professors are not tenured. During my orientation, we were reminded that this is not a continuing education program; this is Hopkins.”

Alice

Alice, using a pseudonym, was a student in the same program. The News-Letter granted her anonymity due to privacy concerns. She started her internship in June 2021 and told The News-Letter that she submitted disability accommodations in the summer of 2020. However, the office did not meet with her until right before she was dismissed.

According to Alice, part of her disability is that she relies more on written instructions and feedback, but her supervisor never provided this.

Alice also explained that she didn’t get along with her supervisor from the very beginning.

“She told me that many of our clients don’t like to see interns because we don’t have the skills to help them make changes,” she said. “She said that the clients don’t want someone who just listened, which I found to be very patronizing and off-putting.”

Alice recounted how her supervisor would not let her see enough clients to meet the internship hours that she required.

“She likes to have her subordinates who work there literally do the same two-hour training over and over again,” she said. “This happened to me, too, which I found really insulting to my intelligence because I already knew most of the stuff explained in the training... Not being emotionally abused shouldn’t have to be a disability accommodation.”

Prior to her dismissal, Alice had a CIP, also called a remediation plan. 

“I got a remediation plan not just for the B- but also for being too quiet in class,” she said. “They told me to speak up more in class. The faculty will ask very personal questions and seek very personal information from students that professors in other fields generally won’t, and if you’re not comfortable revealing such personal info, they will say that you don’t communicate or you’re too quiet.”

Alice emphasized Anderson’s views on the School of Education’s student policies, which she claims fail to take student input or individual circumstances into account.

“Students aren’t supported; they’re put in the weakest position possible. The School of Education could basically do whatever they want based on their policy. The standards for our field are so subjective that it’s very easy for people to abuse their power, including professors,” she said. “Even though we’re in the helping profession, the professors are still flawed human beings; they’ll always be fallible human beings. That’s why you need systems and checks in place to deal with that. It’s just the perfect environment for power abuse.”

Alice was dismissed from the program due to her site supervisor’s negative evaluation. She appealed this decision because, according to the course syllabus, midterm evaluations are not supposed to factor into grades, but her appeal was denied because she did not receive a passing evaluation.

She reflected on the circumstances prior to her dismissal.

“In [my site supervisor’s] firing email, she told me, ‘I have spoken with your professor... and we established the next steps,’” she said. “Obviously the next steps consisted of the school, instead of allowing me to change sites, dismissing me.”

In an email, Alice reiterated Anderson’s views on faculty culture, citing a lack of student input.

“There’s a strange groupthink culture in the program faculty, where the faculty will cover for and agree with their colleagues,” she wrote.

Alice emphasized that the administration does not allow dismissed students from signing up for classes in the School of Education again.

Adam

Adam, a pseudonym, was another student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. The News-Letter granted him anonymity to protect his privacy. He was dismissed from the program in June 2021, with one semester left to graduate. 

Adam was a practicum student and intern at a local mental health treatment center, where he worked for two semesters before being dismissed. He described experiencing repeated sexual harassment from clients in spring 2021, including clients disrobing in front of him, making inappropriate sexual comments, threatening rape, stalking and masturbating throughout the whole session.

While he did inform his site supervisor, he and another student from the counseling program were only removed from the site after the other student informed her internship professor about the issue. 

“In order to complete my degree, I needed a certain number of hours of seeing clients face to face, and most often you have to secure an internship site four months in advance,” he said. “So having been removed forcibly from my site in the middle of the semester was the worst possible timing.”

He recalled that his department did not immediately assign him to a different site.

Adam also had to contact professors to inform them of his situation and provide context for his late assignment submissions and unresponsiveness in class. He especially experienced struggles with Associate Professor in Counseling and Human Services Christina Harnett, who taught his Counseling Military Families course.

“Despite [trauma response in male survivors of color] being a tenet of the course itself, she refused to provide an incomplete, which was all I was asking for,” he said.

He explained that toward the end of the semester, he caught up on most assignments and secured another internship. Most of his professors provided an incomplete instead of failing him. He also requested an incomplete for his Counseling Military Families course because he was still in shock and healing from the traumatic experience. He had submitted a majority of his assignments, but his request for an incomplete was denied.

“Every step of the way she fully denied my request for an incomplete,” he said.

The School of Education automatically dismisses students if they earn two or more F grades. His failure in the course in addition to an F he already had resulted in his dismissal from the program.

Adam also spoke on the repeated dismissal of students from the Counseling program.

“Up to six other students were dismissed from my program within a seven-month timeframe, all of whom are minorities and/or disabled students with documented disabilities as well,” he said. “So this is a recurring theme in our program that is perpetually ongoing and needs to be addressed.”

Autumn

Autumn, using a pseudonym, was dismissed from the program at the end of the summer of 2020. She was granted anonymity by The News-Letter to protect her privacy. 

She failed a course a missing several deadlines, resulting in her signing a CIP. The CIP required her to submit all assignments on time and achieve a grade of B or higher in her courses. This caused her to submit some assignments past granted extension dates.

According to Autumn, she disclosed her struggle with depression via written communication with professors while asking for extensions, and some of them took this into account when granting them to her. Autumn is no longer able to access these emails, having been locked out of her Hopkins account upon her dismissal from the program.

Failing to comply with her CIP resulted in her dismissal from the program. She believes a lack of clarity over policies contributed to this.

“It was very intensive [and] short term, so the professor agreed to give anyone who needed [one] an incomplete,” she said. “At that time, I didn't realize that incomplete just meant I just violated that requirement... so that violated the CIP.”

Autumn received a dismissal letter barring her from attending the School of Education in the future.

She also noticed that several of the students she knows who have been dismissed were of minority status.

“It's a year after, and I have heard my other friends’ and classmates’ stories,” she said. “Through this process, I noticed there is really some unexplainable disproportionate amount [of dismissals] in the Asian community or the disabled.”

Autumn, who is an international student, feels that her advisor did not take her depression into account and did not consider the possibility that she could be deported because of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to deport international students who were not taking in-person courses.

“That also influenced my academic performance during that summer 2020 semester. I had mentioned all of this to my advisor, but it made no difference,” she said. “I got the diagnosis for depression in October 2020 after I was dismissed. Looking back, I was thinking that if I could get the diagnosis earlier, before I was dismissed, maybe there is more justification for keeping my student status.“

Administration response

In an email to The News-Letter, the School of Education Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Mary Beth Regan made a statement condemning discrimination based on disability, race or other factors.

“The safety, success, and well-being of our students are of the utmost importance to us. We are committed to providing academic programs, support services, and facilities that are accessible and welcoming to all,” she wrote. “Johns Hopkins does not tolerate discrimination on the basis of disability, race, or any other protected classifications.”

Regan explained the program informs students of its requirements.

“The Counseling program makes students aware of requirements and expectations, and we strive to ensure a supportive academic environment,” she wrote. “Each year we graduate a cohort of roughly 100 students who are well prepared academically and professionally to embark on career[s] in counseling.”

Regan pointed to resources such as the Office of Institutional Equity and Student Disability Services and highlighted the accommodations the University makes for students during the pandemic.

“Throughout the COVID pandemic, the School of Education has worked to provide flexibility and support to students, and students are urged to reach out to instructors for individual assistance,” she wrote. “The school has established a student emergency fund, provided flexibility on grading policies, and worked with students on issues involving internship and practicum hours.”

On behalf of Harnett, Regan highlighted that the University cannot comment on individual cases and reiterated the University's commitment to flexibility and support. 

Travis did not respond to The News-Letter’s requests for comment.

Public response

Adam Pottle, a writer at Sheridan College, reacted to the students’ experiences on social media.

“What’s happening at Johns Hopkins is unnerving. The professors in the counselling program have been badly mistreating disabled students,” he wrote on Twitter. “We need more disabled counselors, but these professors are driving students out. It’s shameful.”

Nathan Kato, a Hopkins alum, wrote in an email to The News-Letter that he is disappointed in the University’s lack of accommodations for the students.

“It’s absolutely appalling and infuriating that disabled Hopkins students have nowhere to turn. The abysmal performance of the Students Disabilities Office and the lack of humanity from instructors in the middle of a global disabling event is frustrating,” he wrote. “It’s shameful to think that a globally recognized name wouldn’t seek to take care of its own scholars, and is more interested in promoting ableism.”

He expanded on this statement by emphasizing the disparity in COVID-19 safety protections between students with and without disabilities.

“It’s hypocritical for the university to institute COVID safety policies to only protect some students, and it’s absolutely infuriating that the university would choose to not make adjustments even for students who had been struggling in any manner,” he wrote. “I hope that these students are able to be compensated and allowed to finish their programs with the accommodation plans that best suit their needs.”

Yana Mulani contributed reporting to this article. 

Editor's note: The previous version of this article included a link endorsing Anderson's website. The News-Letter has removed this link to maintain a standard of objectivity.

Corrections: The previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Anderson was able to ask to use her disability accommodations past Sept. 11. 

The previous version of this article incorrectly implied that Anderson was the one who turned in her internship evaluation late. 

The News-Letter regrets these errors. 

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