A Florida liberal arts college is under investigation over allegations of “weeding out” applicants with a mental health history.
A Florida college allegedly discriminated against applicants who may have mental health issues, according to a complaint filed by two former students.
The admissions department of the New College of Florida (NCF) adopted a new policy in 2017 that “instituted a ‘red flag’ system for application review,” the complaint alleges. Under the instruction of Dr. Joy Hamm, the new Dean of Admissions at the time who implemented the policy, applications containing “any unusual or concerning details” were flagged for a second review.
“[Dr. Hamm] actively instructed people to red-flag essays where students disclosed mental health issues and disabilities. We believe this may be a violation of the [Americans with Disabilities Act],” reads the complaint, which is available online.
The students who filed the complaint, Maria Simmerling and Eugenia Quintanilla of the class of 2018, worked in the admissions department from 2015-2018. They say they were made aware of the practice through fellow staff who “feared retaliation if they spoke up.”
The document goes on in more disturbing detail: “Dr. Hamm explicitly stated that she was trying to ‘weed out’ people with disabilities and mental health problems in our prospective student pool.”
There were allegedly “multiple cases” of students who qualified for automatic admission but were rejected “after their essays were red-flagged for merely mentioning mental health struggles,” reads the complaint.
After failing to get a serious response from the school, the NCF alumni decided to go public with the allegations. “People should not have to go through a second review process if they disclose mental health or disabilities in their application essays,” they stated.
The school’s chief compliance officer Barbara Stier confirmed the use of red-flagging to Inside Higher Ed. However, she says that the practice was not designed to discriminate but to mark applicants who also have low test scores or lack certain academic requirements to indicate that they did not meet the criteria for admission.
NCF President Donal O’Shea released a statement last Friday acknowledging the complaint. “New College very much values cognitive diversity,” he said. “The allegations in the complaints are absolutely antithetical to our values.”
According to his statement, there will be a second, external investigation in May.
Simmerling and Quintanilla say that the school’s internal investigation—which found no wrongdoing—was a “joke” and was treated as a mere “formality.”
Even as they reached out to administration officials including O’Shea, members of HR and the provost, the students say their complaint was not taken seriously. “They all denied any wrongdoing, often with contradictory stories,” according to the complaint.