Chase Announces Review Of Leave of Absence Policy

As part of an effort to conduct periodic studies of the Academy’s institutions and procedures, Head of School Barbara Landis Chase announced a comprehensive review of the school’s practices and procedures regarding required student departures from campus for medical and psychological reasons. In a letter addressed to parents and students and sent over summer break, Mrs. Chase outlined her reasons for the examination of the leave of absence policy , saying, “We want to make sure that decisions we make [regarding leaves] are effective and fair.” The review, which will be coordinated by Associate Head of School Rebecca Sykes, will begin during the fall trimester with the creation of a committee to discuss possible changes. According to Mrs. Chase and Mrs. Sykes, the group will include members of the Graham House counseling staff, Medical Director Dr. Richard Keller, Dean of Studies Vincent Avery and Dean of Students Marlys Edwards. Additionally, the administration anticipates enlisting the assistance of several “experienced mental health professionals” from outside the school to serve as consultants to the committee, but they will not play a role in the counseling staff’s decisions on individual cases. Over the past few months, the Head of School and top administrators worked to establish a concrete agenda for the committee to follow as it begins its discussions. The review will likely focus on the criteria the Academy uses to determine whether or not a student must be required to leave the school. The group will also examine the length of leaves and the conditions for return to campus, according to Mrs. Chase and Mrs. Sykes. Although Graham House’s three Ph.D. psychologists will be involved in the review process, their mission to “foster the physiological health and well being of the Phillips Academy community” may be in jeopardy as more and more students appear to be losing their confidence in the counselors’ respect of their privacy. According to a poll conducted last year by Andover’s political magazine, Frontline, fewer than 26 percent of the Class of 2003 believed that Graham House maintained student confidentiality. Also, the Counseling Center fared far worse in the poll than the other campus medical center, Isham, where more than 50 percent of Seniors trusted that the nurses and doctors would respect their privacy. The confidentiality of Graham House arose as an issue to many students with the publication in The Phillipian of a three-part series by Cathy Rampell ’03. In the spring of her Upper year, Rampell, a student with excellent grades and and standardized test scores, sought counseling at Graham House after her boyfriend withdrew from the Academy. Rampell claimed that when she attempted to leave one of her sessions with school psychologist Dr. Margaret Jackson, the counselor prevented her from doing so and ordered her held in Isham for the next two days as a suicide risk. Then, the school placed Rampell on a 16-month leave of absence for her allegedly “suicidal” behavior. Rampell’s parents appealed the school’s decision, offering to waive Andover’s liability or move into an apartment in Andover so that Rampell could attend the school as a day student. Even after four psychiatrists hired by Rampell’s parents concluded that Rampell was not at risk for suicide or depression, the school refused to allow her to return in the fall. That summer, however, the Academy changed its position and readmitted her. The subject of a story in The New York Times this summer, Rampell’s tale has established the leave of absence issue as a major topic of conversation on campus. Director of Communications Sharon Britton told The Times that “efforts were under way to have the counseling center “better communicate what we do.” However, she added, “We found nothing that indicated we want to change policy.” Although the attention of the national news media certainly resulted in public scrutiny of Graham House’s actions, Mrs. Chase and Mrs. Sykes maintain that the controversy surrounding Rampell’s case did not influence the decision to begin a review. “As a matter of course, we periodically review all our policies to respond to changes in the environment and the changing needs of our students,” they wrote. Under the terms of Andover’s current guidelines, the Academy grants “both required and voluntary leaves of absence for students who find themselves unable to engage constructively in academy life for medical or psychological reasons.” The decision to require a student to leave the school is made by Dean of Studies Vincent Avery in cooperation with the student’s Graham House counselor and Dr. Keller. According to a document available on the Academy’s website, the school “entrusts such decisions to our internal professionals both because they are well-trained and because they are most familiar with the particular circumstances of the student and the needs of the community.” As is the case with disciplinary actions, parents are able to appeal such decisions in writing to the Associate Head of School. However, the Rampell appeal is the only leave of absence case to be overturned.