Health conditions and privacy rights at university
August 20, 2007 11:31 PM   Subscribe

A professor revealed information about my chronic illness to a classroom full of people. Who do I talk to?

I have Crohn's Disease, a chronic, painful, and sometimes debilitating illness. Upon arriving late to one of my graduate level classes, I explained to the teacher in private why I was late, and that I would probably need to leave the room more than once. During one of these restroom trips, and while discussing the class roster, the professor told the class "She (referring to me) is out of the classroom to deal with her (my) Crohn's."

I feel like this is a violation of my privacy, if I wanted to share this with my classmates, I would have told them myself. (I have, but it was after the fact, and was my choice.) I want to make clear that this is unacceptable, and follow through to make sure this issue doesn't get lost in the shuffle.

My question is, where do I go with this? The office for my grad program has proven themselves to be useless. Some cursory web searches for "professor violated student privacy" brings up many results for FERPA, but that seems to deal more with grades and other educational information. The Americans with Disabilities Act site, and other searches seem to bring up vague information on whether Crohn's is covered under the ADA. Student affairs? My university's Disability Resource Center?

I can reveal what university I go to, if anyone needs to know, but the policies should be the same on a general level no matter where I am. I could just let it go, but I really don't want her to continue doing this.
posted by lemonwheel to Education (59 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think both of your suggestions - student affairs and the disability resource center - are likely good bets. Student Affairs might be better because (if your university is structured like mine), it'll be more likely to be filled with people who are used to cracking skulls.

Don't let them give you the runaround. Depending on how developed the bureaucracy is at your particular institution, I can imagine a situation where you get shuffled from office to office in the hopes that you'll just give up.

Have you considered speaking directly to the professor?
posted by dismas at 11:37 PM on August 20, 2007

You probably know this, but I'll share anyway: make it clear when you go to whomever (student affairs and the disability services office both seem like good options) that this is not just about you. That is, you chose to share this information, but not all students will make that choice, and they have that right.

Of course, it's also your right to choose when to out yourself, and that is something that should be pointed out as well. But making the point above may help the powers that be recognize that you're not just trying to punish the professor out of spite. Note also that this is probably more relevant if you talk to student affairs or another 'generic' ombuds office; disability services will already be familiar with this concept.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:44 PM on August 20, 2007

What do you want to accomplish? If it's really just getting the professor to not do this in the future, confronting her is probably the best bet. Schedule a meeting and tell her it was a violation of trust. I imagine she'll be very apologetic and it'll make her think about the issue in a new way (or think about it at all).
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:44 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

This isn't against the law, unless you think your professor was being malicious, intending to shame or embarrass you, or otherwise discriminate against you.

It doesn't sound like malice; it sounds like your professor disclosed some information about you that you would have preferred he not disclose. It sounds like his intent was probably to explain something that he and others in the class viewed as a disruption. You view this as a discourtesy, which it was; but it was probably an accidental discourtesy. There are tremendous pressures on schools these days not to restrict what faculty can say in the classroom.

That said, what your prof did would be a clear violation of Harvard's conduct guidelines for instructors (scroll down to "Confidentiality and Discretion.") Your school probably has similar guidelines, and your prof's actions probably violated them.

If you go to your Dean's office about this, and make an appointment to speak to the Dean, you may eventually get as much as an apology from your prof. However, the cat is out of the bag; the things said can't be unsaid, and the Dean will not - probably can't - do anything to make it better for you. On the other hand if the Dean reprimands your prof he'll probably think twice before doing the same thing in the future.

If you go to your Dean, you have the right not to expect reprisal for this; I worded this sentence very carefully to reflect what I think will probably happen.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:45 PM on August 20, 2007

Response by poster: I did briefly consider speaking directly to the professor, but this just seems so egregious that it requires something more. Without sounding like a drama queen, I'm very aware of how something like having a chronic illness can affect people's perceptions. Plus, this teacher is not particularly receptive to student discussion, ideas or criticisms.
posted by lemonwheel at 11:47 PM on August 20, 2007

Response by poster: I'm not talking about any legal action, that's not warranted here. As I said before, I just want her to know, clearly, that what she did is inappropriate.
posted by lemonwheel at 11:49 PM on August 20, 2007

Head of department/dean's office. Call for an appointment.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:50 PM on August 20, 2007

If one goal for you is to prevent this information from being spread further, then making a stink about it is counterproductive.

It's hard to see how you could complain about it without even more people finding out what it is you're trying to keep secret.

I understand that you're angry, but maybe the best thing to do is to let it go.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:59 PM on August 20, 2007

Response by poster: Nope, not about the spread of information (I'll be buying this shirt soon, in fact), it's about my right to be the one to spread this information. If I were gay, and a teacher outed me in front of a class, would that be acceptable? Really, I don't plan to take this any further than one appointment/action.
posted by lemonwheel at 12:03 AM on August 21, 2007

At UC Santa Cruz, we had a few places you could contact should something like this occur:

1) The Disability Resource Center (which, on this page, tells faculty that student disabilities are confidential), and which may be able to provide you with documentation that what your professor did was illegal or against university regulations; here, for example, you can see that Crohn's is covered under one of the five categories of disability the DRC covers.

2) The Ombuds' Office, which would "help resolve complaints, provide information and referrals, facilitate communication between individuals and among department staff", and "locate answers to your questions, or find someone who can"...your university might have the same type of thing. Basically, the Ombuds is a clearinghouse for information and resources for people seeking to resolve a conflict or answer a question about university policy or action. Because the Ombuds deals with so many different levels of people - janitors, chancellors, lab assistants, clerks, students, RAs, essentially everyone at the campus - I've found they're more able to assist people than those within individual departments or organizations, which may be more calcified in their thinking or resistant to change.

So the first person I'd contact would be the Ombuds' office, in order to get a good idea of what you'd like to come out of this process and how to go about that; info about the ombuds' confidentiality, informality, and impartiality are on the same website.

Also, document all your contact with everyone you meet from here on out dealing with this, as that might come in handy later.

On preview: people saying it's not against the law perhaps aren't seeing that there are ways to resolve this without resorting to lawyers; people saying you should let it go might be preventing a professor from receiving a justified negative note on an evaluation or performance review in the future.

And this:

Plus, this teacher is not particularly receptive to student discussion, ideas or criticisms.

tells me that you might not be the first person this has happened to in this professor's class; at the very least, I'd speak to the Ombuds to find out what you can do to make sure this is addressed by a superior in the future. The record you make of this will help future students who rightly complain about this person's disregard for your privacy, possibly in violation of the law and/or university policy, sound both more credible to those reviewing his record for past problems, and provide a date for how long this type of thing has been happening. Report it.
posted by mdonley at 12:10 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't agree this is "so egregious that it requires something more." It's inappropriate but not illegal and possibly not even against University policy. Having Crohn's is certainly not equivalent to being gay. Having another disease or condition is not equivalent to having Crohn's. You can't generalize that the professor would disclose something else involving another student because he disclosed your illness.
posted by dendrite at 12:14 AM on August 21, 2007

Sorry, let me modify "Disclosing someone having Crohn's is certainly not equivalent to disclosing someone's sexual orientation."
posted by dendrite at 12:15 AM on August 21, 2007

I'm surprised at the the whiff of "just keep quiet honey and this will all blow over" tone of some suggestions here. What she did was stupid and indeed an invasion of your privacy. A simple "She needed to tend to personal affairs" would have done fine but in her ignorance she was specific. In essence, you are right, she is wrong and you have every right to pursue this further. Mdonely nailed it. Good luck.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 12:18 AM on August 21, 2007

Sue, sue, sue.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:25 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

If one goal for you is to prevent this information from being spread further, then making a stink about it is counterproductive.

I disagree. A few school administrators will know, but it won't get spread too far--its not like people spraypaint it on the walls. The person just doesn't want it spread by a professor. Might be nice to hear an apology from the prof too.

Explore your options with student affairs and or department heads and the dean's office.

Start small and work your way up.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:26 AM on August 21, 2007

I don't agree this is "so egregious that it requires something more." It's inappropriate but not illegal and possibly not even against University policy. Having Crohn's is certainly not equivalent to being gay. Having another disease or condition is not equivalent to having Crohn's. You can't generalize that the professor would disclose something else involving another student because he disclosed your illness.

Here's where the two are parallel. Having a disability (or chronic condition, if you prefer) is something that, in our society, carries a great deal of baggage with it, including undeserved stigma and prejudice. While some of us (like LEMONWHEEL, I would guess) choose to be "out and proud", or at least not in denial, that choice is ours to make. So is the choice of when and how to disclose.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:46 AM on August 21, 2007

Talk to the professor first; it's simple courtesy. I doubt she had any idea that you considered that information sensitive or private. (I wouldn't have had, either; the people I've known with Crohn's and similar ailments haven't seemed to try to keep it private. OTOH, I tend to be quiet about other peoples' personal lives in general. It doesn't seem strange that you'd want to keep this private, but at the same time it's not the sort of information I would implicitly know to compartmentalize.)

You have the right to decide how you disseminate information about yourself. But if you tell someone something and don't indicate that you'd rather they didn't pass it on, then I don't think you have a right to be upset at them when they do.
posted by hattifattener at 1:46 AM on August 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

dendrite misses the point that it shouldn't be up to a professor to make judgement calls like that.

Universities, like any big organisation, have people on staff to keep people in line on matters like this. Notify them, and let them make the appropriate action. It might only be a sternly worded email, but that's probably all it will need. More importantly, it shouldn't have to be up to LEMONWHEEL to approach the prof directly and potentially have to argue that it was an inappropriate thing to do.

Do as mdonley says.
posted by edd at 1:50 AM on August 21, 2007

As much as I hate to point this out, students in classes are on the wrong side of a well-established power differential. I agree that your professor's disclosure of your condition was highly inappropriate and unprofessional; however, I would be concerned about possible repercussions if you were to pursue this at a higher level.

I'm not suggesting that your professor would react maliciously but it wouldn't be unusual for her to, say, not grant you the benefit of the doubt further down the line. This sucks and isn't even remotely fair but, as a student, you're on the wrong side of the power differential. The kicker is, of course, that not giving you the benefit of the doubt is entirely her perogative and notoriously difficult to prove.

I've used university ombuds' offices in the past and their first suggestion has always been to speak to the professor directly. In my experience, they won't even get involved unless you've done that; however, perhaps situations with disabilities may be treated differently. I guess I think that it might be best to have a quiet word with your professor and take it from there. If she's entirely unrepentant or remains unaware of the crassness of her actions after that, then you have a very strong case to bring forward to the university.
posted by lumiere at 2:18 AM on August 21, 2007

I would definitely speak to the professor in private about this specific incident, and then speak to the ombudsman/disability services about the problem in general, without naming your professor.

Like hattifattener says, it's common courtesy to speak to the individual first, and you can address the issue with the relevant body without making it seem like you're taking revenge on the professor for her error of judgement.
posted by creeky at 2:39 AM on August 21, 2007

I agree with hattifatterner, lumiere, and creeky: approach her directly. It may be unnerving to approach a professor directly, but the proper way to address someone who has been discourteous is respond with courtesy and good will and the benefit of the doubt. Escalating can be insulting if you've made no actual effort to resolve this with her, and if you're escalating because you're too nervous to talk with her directly, you're entering wobbly moral ground yourself.

Make an appointment with her during office hours. Explain that you should have been more clear in urging discretion, as you'd prefer not to be singled out by your classmates, but had wanted to tell professors in case related events interfered with attendance and assignments. I'd avoid words like "unprofessional" "bad judgement" "irresponsible" -- again, you're taking the higher path here -- let her come to that on her own, and she will. This allows her an opportunity to apologize gracefully, which most people will do, and apply it to her life without making her feel like a student is making her call "uncle". If she doesn't apologize on your first explanation (most people in that situation would apologize by that point, just to clear the awkwardness of the situation), ask her right then if she understands you, or has questions. Try to work things out with her. And then, at the end of the meeting, if you find she's behaving maliciously or with ignorance, then escalate. As far as you need to.

Be strong, and this will help you educate people to your situation. Otherwise, you have a long semester ahead of you.
posted by mochapickle at 3:31 AM on August 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

As a lecturer myself, I'd say this profesor was out of line, she has to know stuff like this in order to make accomodation for your condition in the delivery of your education. You have an absolute right not to have this broadcast further than those who need to know about it. I'd be surprised if your institution doesn't have regulations which make this clear to lecturing staff. Resolving it is another matter, the direct approach described by mochapickle is probably worthwhile, I would imagine you would get an apology from any educator with any sense - they would realise they were out of order pretty quickly and that their institution would not be happy with them, and hopefully this would be enough to change their behaviour in the future. If they insist on being dickheads then take it further.
posted by biffa at 3:50 AM on August 21, 2007

Under FERPA it is illegal for the university to disclose information in its records except under certain circumstances. If the university has a record of your condition (which would include something as simple as an e-mail), then it may have violated FERPA even if your instructor did not learn of your condition from the records. Of course, they would probably argue the contrary, but you could certainly make a stink. The university should know this behavior is unethical even if it isn't technically illegal and would probably would do whatever it could to avoid a complaint to the Department of Education. FERPA is interpreted by 34 CFR Part 99.

In addition to the practical considerations mentioned already, you might consider that making enemies in your graduate program can hurt you, especially if you are doing a PhD. If the you manage to get the prof in trouble or even just annoy you, she can make your life more difficult or harm your reputation with other members of the faculty, perhaps by lying. It's the sort of thing that unfortunately happens all the time. This milquetoast warning is not a defense of that state of affairs but it's something you might want to consider nonetheless. Only you can decide whether it is worth it.
posted by grouse at 4:28 AM on August 21, 2007

I think it's obvious that you should approach the professor directly -- it's a matter of courtesy (wouldn't everyone here like to be confronted first before another process is initialized?), may produce an outcome that's completely satisfactory to you, and virtually any complaint process will ask whether you have done so; it's not as though you must refrain from doing so in order to preserve your anonymity.

You say this is so egregious that it requires doing more; quite likely, but talking to the professor is the first step, not necessarily the last. You add "[p]lus, this teacher is not particularly receptive to student discussion, ideas or criticisms"; suffice it to say that you've no experience with how he or she might react in this situation. It's quite possible that the professor already realizes that this was a total mistake, and feels bad, or will be intimidated by the thought of the complaint process that'll ensue. So don't prejudge this.

Do take into account the possibility of personal repercussions from pursuing this, but you've clearly been wronged, and it would be good to send a signal of some kind that this shouldn't happen. Personally, I think the professor's behavior is extraordinary and quite unusual in an educational setting, but perhaps I'm wrong.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:34 AM on August 21, 2007

"If one goal for you is to prevent this information from being spread further, then making a stink about it is counterproductive.

I disagree. A few school administrators will know, but it won't get spread too far--its not like people spraypaint it on the walls.."

I think Ironmouth, who wrote the last bit, is dead wrong here. Gossip makes the rounds in a university department very quickly. Word will inevitably get out that the professor is in some trouble and then word will get out about what the professor did. Unless you are in an exceptionally odd department I'm pretty sure most of the people there will know about your problem in short order.
posted by oddman at 4:56 AM on August 21, 2007

As a professor, I also agree with "talk to her first". She may already be regretting this lapse -- I am going to guess that she slipped after thinking something like, "I don't want any of the students thinking I am giving her/him preferential treatment -- I need them to know there's a reason he/she gets to take more breaks than I generally allow," and at the spur of the moment, revealed more than she should have. She needs to know this is the wrong way to handle it, as you have said, so she doesn't "out" others.

Another thing -- professors who "are not receptive to student criticism, etc." are generally rather insecure, in my experience. Mochapickle addresses a good way to approach her so that it is a learning experience for her rather than a confrontation. This is definitely a job for "I statements".
posted by lleachie at 5:18 AM on August 21, 2007

Hi, LM!

I also agree - talk with the professor first, before pulling out the big guns. Going above her head without talking to her will not only immediately put her on the defensive, and put you in less than the most positive light.

Go talk to her first, explain your stance, and see what she says. Her reaction will tell you if contacting the disabilities ombudsman (or equivalent office) is even necessary.
posted by canine epigram at 5:51 AM on August 21, 2007

IANAL, but I'm a manager at a corporation, and according to my training, this kind of thing would be a violation of HIPAA. We've been told that if employee A has a dentist appointment and employee B asks why employee A is not at the meeting, it's illegal for me to disclose where employee A is because it's related to medical care. I know a student isn't an employee, but there may be some overlapping coverage there.
posted by CaptainZingo at 5:57 AM on August 21, 2007

I strongly disagree with the suggestions that have you going over the professor's head first, including your "best answer". (Disclaimer: I am a college instructor myself.) Yes, what the professor said was at best thoughtless, but that does not mean she would not be mortified to realize what she did (and perhaps already is), or that it wasn't just a misunderstanding.

For example, I had a student miss class a while back because of a serious medical issue. My understanding was that all of the students in her group project knew about that issue, so I can imagine I might have referred to it with them. If I had done that, and then found out I was wrong, and that she wanted to keep her condition secret, I would have wanted to know directly from the student that I had done something wrong, and I would have been extremely apologetic -- because I would never intentionally do something hurtful like that.

Also, if I got paid a dollar for every time I have said something stupid to my class, I'd have a bunch of money, at least. (Hopefully not this stupid, but I have said plenty of things I immediately wished I had not. I've also fallen off a chair, landing on my butt in front of a whole class, while attempting to reach the top of the whiteboard to write. Yes, instructors have plenty of chances to feel stupid.) Professors are human too, and I believe you owe it to this professor to speak to her first before you put her job in jeopardy over this.

I think lleachie's answer is a good one.
posted by litlnemo at 6:07 AM on August 21, 2007

[off-topic, but] CaptainZingo, you've been told something incorrect. HIPAA does not restrict your ability to tell other employees that someone has a dentist's appointment. See this NY times article for more detail, but basically HIPAA was designed to keep certain information private so you could take your health insurance with you when you changed jobs. Blanket "I can't tell you" applications of HIPAA are not only a misinterpretation of the actual law, but are doing real damage in the heath care industry, where often family members are kept from getting the best and most up to date information about the care their loved ones are receiving.
posted by anastasiav at 6:23 AM on August 21, 2007

I also teach college.

If you were an undergrad, I'd say to just go straight to the chair or dean.

But you're not, so like it or not you have to think harder about blowback. If you're comfortable talking directly to the prof, go ahead and do so. If you want someone to have your back before you do, or you're just not comfortable talking to the prof, talk to your DGS and ask him/her to have an informal word with the prof.

Professors are human too, and I believe you owe it to this professor to speak to her first before you put her job in jeopardy over this.

Her job is not in jeopardy over this. Or rather, if she's on such thin ice already that this does jeopardize her job, she's really getting fired for all of the other shit that put her on thin ice, not this.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:28 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Another prof here, and I'll echo the talk-to-the-prof sentiment. There was surely no malicious intent, so no real cause for legal action. If you go above her head then there's a good chance they'll be forced to take retributive action to cover their butts. You could, however, pass something up the line that it was done by "one of my profs" and not mention who. This way the faculty and TAs can be educated on it without anyone getting in real trouble. That seems to be what you really want done, right? Nobody will win but lawyers and the papers if you sue, and you'll come out as the bad guy.

I've had very little experience with this sort of thing in my own classes, so when it comes up I have to spend lots of time thinking before I speak. The first thing on my mind is teaching the class, so it's easy to slip up. It doesn't happen often enough for someone uneducated on the proper way to deal with it to have common sense. Besides, profs tend not to have much of that to begin with.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:38 AM on August 21, 2007

Yeah I want to nth everyone who has said talk to the prof first. This may not have been malicious at all, and you would be well served by approaching the prof and talking to them face-to-face. The last place that you want an adversarial relationship with an academic is grad school.
posted by ob at 6:48 AM on August 21, 2007

Maybe she is using it as a mnemonic device to remember who you are.

Maybe she meant to say it to herself, or maybe she said it softly and some students heard it.

Maybe the professor accidentally let it slip out, she could have been rambling on as she went through the list to take attendance.

I highly doubt this was malicious, and if you are offended, perhaps you should write the professor a letter, or meet in person with her, to discuss why this bothered you and then drop the class if you are too embarrassed to continue.

But that doesn't sound like the case here. You told your professor, and not in confidence, and you have no control over how she uses that information. Discuss it with her, and then if she is sincere about not realizing that she did anything wrong, or apologizes, let it go.
posted by trueluk at 6:52 AM on August 21, 2007

you've gotten your answers here i think, but i just wanted to chime in and say it was an absolute violation of your privacy, which could lead to harrassment or worse at the hands of your peers (probably not for crohn's, but what if the prof had made an offhand comment about you having aids, or being gay, or some other thing that intolerant people hate and fear?). i think that's really the point here. so, good on you for wanting to do something.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:58 AM on August 21, 2007

I would be upset, too, but I'd talk with the professor and let her know how it made you feel. Everyone says stupid things accidentally and they shouldn't have to pay too heavy a price if it didn't seriously hurt anyone. She deserves another chance before being reprimanded by her superiors.
I'm be wary of making a professor upset with me by reporting him or her to management. Universities, and especially graduate programs, are notoriously political and you don't want faculty to dislike you and make you out to be a hypersensitive snitch.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:03 AM on August 21, 2007

I agree with litlnemo. Doing anything more than talking to the professor would be a big mistake. What productive thing could be accomplished by going above the professor, that cannot be accomplished by speaking to the professor directly? If you go above the professor, you will come across, justifiably or not, as someone who is making a mountain out of a molehill.
posted by jayder at 7:14 AM on August 21, 2007

lemonwheel: my sympathies. I had a roommate with a very bad case of crohns (retired professor, as it happens). I can appreciate your feelings.

If you really want to prevent such things in the future, as opposed to get a bit of revenge, monkeymadness has the right idea. Revenge isn't really very useful.
posted by Goofyy at 7:25 AM on August 21, 2007

"Her job is not in jeopardy over this. Or rather, if she's on such thin ice already that this does jeopardize her job, she's really getting fired for all of the other shit that put her on thin ice, not this."

Well, I guess so. (I'm adjunct part-time so my perspective is based on employment being more fragile than that of a tenured professor.) It still strikes me as wrongheaded to immediately bring out the big guns over this.

It clearly upset the poster, but unless this is a pattern of behavior by the professor, or the professor has refused to discuss it, or has refused to alter behavior when confronted, going above the professor to deal with it is inappropriate. At least try the direct route first, then go above and beyond if it turns out to be necessary.

Personally, if it were me, I'd be embarrassed and apologetic -- but I like to think I'd appreciate the lesson learned.
posted by litlnemo at 7:27 AM on August 21, 2007

I disagree with much of trueluk's post, save that it was probably accidental rambling (the alternative that it was a mnemonic device -- !!), and that you should talk to the professor first.

It's what you should do if the professor is for some reason unapologetic -- which I think is unlikely -- that I really differ. It's open to you, of course, but it'd be terrible if you were driven to drop the course for this reason.

Also, Trueluk writes: You told your professor, and not in confidence, and you have no control over how she uses that information. It should have been obvious to the professor that this was confidential. I have received exactly the same disclosure (right down to the disease, and the problems it posed), and it was entirely self-evident to me that I was not at liberty to broadcast this. This professor messed up, and while it literally may be true that you had no control over whether the information was shared more widely, I would strongly differ with the suggestion that you are wrong to feel wronged.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:02 AM on August 21, 2007

I'm with Goofyy - it's really a question of what your goals are here. Of course, it really hurts to feel like someone (especially someone in a position of authority) has done you wrong and abused your trust, but you have to ask yourself whether you actually want revenge, or just want to make sure this doesn't happen later to someone else. If it's the latter, you can't lose anything by talking directly to the professor... phrasing things in terms of "this really hurt me" rather than "you're so untrustworthy" will probably work wonders as a guilt trip. Point out clearly that future students could also be hurt by such disclosures of their own situations. Hopefully you get a very genuine apology.

I agree that for entirely self-serving reasons you should try to avoid making enemies in your graduate program, but of course if the prof dismisses you then you should actually go to higher levels to make sure he or she realizes the seriousness of the issue. But my point is, while you probably feel (rightfully) indignant and hurt, try to let go of the idea that you're seeking justice and just aim to make sure the situation is never repeated.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:20 AM on August 21, 2007

College instructor myself.

Tell the prof what effect their action had on you. Give them a chance to square what might have been a momentary slip.

If their response is anything but a sincere apology and pledge it won't happen again, take it up the chain, and name names.
posted by sacre_bleu at 8:54 AM on August 21, 2007

You could discuss this with someone at the office for students with disabilities, or ombuds office, and get their support for your initial conversation with your prof. Not only may they be able to give you good suggestions on how to handle it/document it, in case it escalates you'll have them on record and probably feeling invested in it, too.
posted by Salamandrous at 10:07 AM on August 21, 2007

I don't agree this is "so egregious that it requires something more." It's inappropriate but not illegal and possibly not even against University policy. Having Crohn's is certainly not equivalent to being gay.

People just don't seem to understand the stigma that accompanies digestive disorders. A basic human function that most of us that for granted is a sometimes embarrassing and often debilitating way. People might think you are gross, but more likely they will feel uncomfortable or feel that you are unreliable because your condition. You don't have to be gay to be harassed and discriminated against.

But more importantly, you should be the one to disclose this. When I talk about my illness I am in control of how I am perceived. I don't want to grant this control to anyone else.

If anything, perhaps you bringing this up will lead to formal policies about how illness is treated in class. If I were you I'd send a simple e-mail to whoever handles HR for the department.
posted by melissam at 10:55 AM on August 21, 2007

Lemonwheel, in my answer above, I never ruled out talking to the professor; that might even be the first step the Ombuds' office recommends. I suggested going elsewhere (not "above", but elsewhere...) because you implied that the professor was difficult to deal with and somewhat unapproachable, and that you could get the satisfaction of knowing that the incident had been noted without a confrontation, if you - who know this person better than anyone commenting here - think that's prudent.

Perhaps the Ombuds can facilitate a meeting as a neutral party (as they are not connected to you or the professor's department in any organizational-tree way), or even just help you identify ways to discuss the problem with the professor in a constructive way; again, no one would ever know you'd met with them. Good luck.
posted by mdonley at 11:09 AM on August 21, 2007

If you're intent is to get the prof sanctioned in some way other than being told to apologize to you, then maybe you want to go over your prof's head. However, if all you're looking for is an apology, it's pretty rude to not speak to your prof first.
posted by juv3nal at 11:43 AM on August 21, 2007

I second sacre_bleu on this. Call in authorities only if the prof doesn't get the clue.

I do have a question, though: When the prof disclosed this info, was it along the lines of say, someone asking, "Why does LEMONWHEEL leave the room during class?" and she was explaining why?

I'm not saying it's okay to do that, necessarily, but I was wondering what would have been appropriate for the prof to say instead of someone had asked. Is "She has a medical problem" acceptable, or should she have said nothing at all?

(I suppose this sort of thing is why most of the people I've known with bathroom-time illness are pretty blunt about it. Even the one guy I know who didn't disclose it for months, well...I figured it out on my own.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:00 PM on August 21, 2007

CaptainZingo, you've been told something incorrect. HIPAA does not restrict your ability to tell other employees that someone has a dentist's appointment.


It is not a violation of HIPAA, even as a medical provider, to disclose that someone was at a certain place at a certain time.

For instance, the waiting room of a doctor's office is more or less a public area, and there is no expectation of privacy there.

What is privileged is medical information, such as WHY you were going to the doctor.

So, for your dentist example, saying "she had a dentist's appointment" would not be a violation of HIPAA. Saying "she had to go to the dentist because she has to have a root canal" could be considered a violation of HIPAA, depending on how you became aware it was for a root canal.

However, understand that if someone discloses something themselves, it is no longer privileged. If Susie stands up during a meeting and says "I've got to go to the dentist, I've got to have a root canal", then she no longer has any expectation of privacy.

Remember, the patient can disclose whatever they want to whomever. It is the holder of protected health information (PHI) that has the burden under HIPAA.

Note further that if you are not in the healthcare industry, it is unlikely HIPAA relates to you anyway. It would likely only apply if you were in Human Resources, where you had access to an employee's file, and (possibly) medical information (insurance claims, worker's comp cases, etc).

HIPAA is poorly understood even inside of healthcare, and outside of healthcare I would imagine it is not understood at all.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:15 PM on August 21, 2007

Response by poster: No one asked; she just said it while she was going through the class roster. I'm not sure what possessed her to do so, whether it was a slip of the tongue, or not, but I don't think it was malicious.

After reading all of your suggestions, I'm going to speak to the professor, and depending on her reaction, go from there. My intent is not to get her in trouble, or drum up material for a future lawsuit (again, not warranted), but to make her aware that it is inappropriate. This is the same professor who talks about her church in class, and makes other students uncomfortable, so I just wanted to get some ideas, in case approaching her directly didn't work.

posted by lemonwheel at 12:15 PM on August 21, 2007

It sounds like the prof said something she may not have meant to disclose. She might have been thinking out loud or have been trying to explain "preferential treatment" (and thus saying more than she should have). People do make mistakes.

That being said, I am Crohn's query myself. I do not like other students or co-workers to know this. It could cause people to make judgements about my abilities, refuse a job to me, avoid giving me stressful duties (because of a mistaken belief that my illness relates to stress), etc.

So, I think you should just talk to the prof quietly. Explain that you'd heard that your illness was disclosed and that you hope that wasn't the case. Say that you aren't very comfortable with the information being out there and that you hope she can keep it private from now on. You might even explain the ways in which it could affect you.

People have a lot of mistaken beliefs about Crohn's. My husband was engaged to me before he discovered that it was not a terminal illness. (I just had to marry him after that!)

You might want to talk to the disability office at your university for further advice about accommodating your illness. I never disclosed my illness to anyone. I figured that my profs would quickly surmise that their straight-A student had some reasonable excuse for leaving the classroom with a tortured look.
posted by acoutu at 12:44 PM on August 21, 2007

An individual's health information is absolutely as important as their sexual orientation. Disclosing it is likely a violation of FERPA and/or HIPAA. People are routinely discriminated against based on health/disability. You have every right to be outraged. The professor is assumed to be reasonably intelligent, and information discussed with your professor should never be assumed to be public.

Your university is large enough to have a graduate program, so they almost certainly have an ombudsman, and/or a Equal Rights Officer. Those people know about the delicacy of the relationship between a grad student and a prof., and should be able to help you plan an appropriate response.
posted by theora55 at 3:36 PM on August 21, 2007

Not sure if I'm supposed to do this on AskMe, but I have a question about this in a more general sense, rather than an answer for Lemonwheel.

I teach part time in a community sports center (children ages 3 to about 14) and there are often students with medical and behavioural issues who must be treated differently than the rest of the class, which the kids of course notice. The other kids also often, if not always, want to know what's going on. So what does one tell them. If Johnny is disruptive and gets away with it (to some extent) because I know that he's got severe ADHD and have told I have to deal with it, or if Mary's got a bladder infection and her mom has asked me to let her leave the rink to pee whenever she asks, what do I tell the other kids? They really notice, it can be disruptive and it looks like favoritism.

I'm guessing that the professor in this case made what she thought was an offhand and even enlightened remark, that what you thought was insensitive she thought was matter-of-fact.

Anyway, what IS an appropriate way to let a classroom full of people know that the disruption is sanctioned, without violating trust or privacy? (My workplace has no policy on this as far as I know)
posted by nax at 3:42 PM on August 21, 2007

Nax, I can't say what is appropriate for kids. But I think we should be able to assume that a responsible adult who is otherwise paying attention in class/meeting probably has a valid reason to leave the room.
posted by acoutu at 4:58 PM on August 21, 2007

Nax: What I seem to remember from school was "she has a note from her parents/doctor". That seemed to answer pretty much any query we ever had.

However, I think you may need a more in-depth talk with the administration if their only solution to a "severe ADHD" kid was "just deal with it".
posted by Ynoxas at 5:20 PM on August 21, 2007

My gf has been outed in class for having dyslexia before. Anyone who thinks college kids are above making fun of people for a disability is dead ass wrong. Talk to the prof and if you're not satisfied, guns blazin.
posted by CwgrlUp at 7:39 PM on August 21, 2007

Your professor should not have done this. But he isn't Satan for goodness sake, he is a fallible human who made an error in judgment. Just let him know, then let it go.
posted by LarryC at 9:46 PM on August 21, 2007

I'd just like to add my second to the idea that you owe it to the professor to talk with her first before going over her head. To be clear, I think you *should* take it further - to other offices or her supervisor, as the best advice above pointed out - to ensure the higher-ups take time to reiterate to the staff that this sort of casual disclosure of medical information without permission is *NOT* ok.

But you owe it to the prof to make an appointment, calmly express your surprise and disappointment at the blurting, and wait to see her reaction before you go further. That's the most fair way to do it, and the one that's most likely to guarantee good results.
posted by mediareport at 10:11 PM on August 21, 2007

Personally, I would wait until I was clear of any possible retaliation before bringing this up. The exception being if I saw the professor pulling similar crap, or being generally insensitive in any sense of the word.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:10 AM on August 22, 2007

However, I think you may need a more in-depth talk with the administration if their only solution to a "severe ADHD" kid was "just deal with it".

It was a horrible horrible situation. It got to the point where I reported to my boss that he was hugely improved when he had stopped screaming at me and hitting me (I'm not kidding). I had to "deal with it" for 4 class sessions (40 weeks) and the child never missed a class; the MOTHER WOULD LEAVE after dropping him. I asked for an aide; the aide they sent was a menace because she couldn't stand up in ice skates (did I mention this was all in skating class?) I asked admin to please tell her not to come back-- no dice, that's "discrimination." I asked for training in dealing with it, so they had their ADA liasion person call me and talk to me for about 10 minutes with helpful things like "Give the child personal attention" (in a class with 14 kids on skates and only one teacher.) I used to cry before class.

I finally told the mother that I couldn't handle it anymore and to please either sign him up for a different section or try a different sport. She was quite offended. I should have showed her my bruises.

Don't mean to hijack the discussion! But it feels good to vent about it!

He was the worst, but it's not uncommon to have kids with medical/emotional issues. Thanks for the suggestions, and I see your point acoutu about how age will make a difference.
posted by nax at 3:04 PM on August 23, 2007

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