College expels nursing student for writing 'insensitive' creative essay about mental health

A nursing student was kicked out of school for writing an allegedly insensitive essay about mental health in relation to a murder case.

The school asserted that the creative writing assignment violated its 'dishonest, disrespectful, or disruptive' behavior ban.

A nursing student was expelled after she wrote a purportedly insensitive essay about mental health in relation to a murder case.

Kaylyn Willis, who attended Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon, took instructor Patrick Harris’ section of Chronic I. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has been advocating for Willis, reports that students were told to use “critical imagining” to write and post online “a story from the perspective of a person suffering from a chronic disease or disorder.”

For one assignment, Harris asked students to “reflect on the support systems of chronically ill individuals and how a person with a chronic illness might respond to the sudden and unexpected loss of a support system.” 

Willis wrote about a hypothetical scenario in which a woman with ALS — a severe neurological disorder — shoots her husband. 

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According to FIRE, Willis received no points for the assignment and emailed Harris to inquire about the grade.

The instructor replied, “Do you honestly think that your post on a nursing school assignment was appropriate? Joking about killing your husband? I’m really questioning your critical thinking if you think this was an appropriate discussion post.” 

Willis received another email summoning her to a meeting with administrators; she was told that she would be removed from the program for violating the student handbook’s ban on “dishonest, disrespectful, or disruptive” behavior.

Willis’ appeal was rejected on May 19; FIRE reports, “she remains expelled from the program and is unable to seek admission to any other Oregon Consortium Nursing Education programs, effectively ending her career plans.”

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FIRE Program Officer Anne Marie Tamburro told Campus Reform that the case “represents a serious infringement on students’ academic and expressive freedoms.”

“It’s one thing for professors to give students bad grades on assignments where they feel their answers were unsatisfactory or inappropriate, she said. “But to go as far as expelling a student for contributing something that’s deemed offensive based on the idiosyncratic history of the school or the individual instructor is a clear affront to the student’s rights.”

FIRE sent Umpqua Community College President Rachel Pokrandt a letter on August 16 to explain that “Willis’ discussion post is clearly protected speech.”

“This principle does not shield Willis from every consequence of her expression — including criticism by students, faculty, the broader community, or the university itself,” the letter reads. “Criticism is a form of ‘more speech,’ the remedy to offensive expression that the First Amendment prefers to censorship.”

On September 1, however, the college rejected FIRE’s request through its outside attorney.

“UCC punished Willis for submitting a story that met all the criteria,” Tamburro said in a press release. “They asked her to use her imagination, then wrote off her response as a joke and kicked her out. It takes imagination to write a story about a sensitive topic, but it takes no imagination to trample someone’s rights.”

Speaking with Campus Reform, Tamburro said, “By advocating for Kaylyn [Willis], we at FIRE are standing up for her and other students to have the freedom to develop intellectually and explore new or controversial ideas in the classroom, a setting designed for that kind of activity, without worrying about possible punishment.”

Campus Reform reached out to Umpqua Community College for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.