College board hears nursing student’s case

Posted 3/10/11

Paris, Nursing Program Director Cody Nielson, two nursing instructors and Paris’ father, Rod Paris, testified in the day-long hearing before the NWC Board of Trustees and hearing examiner S.B. “Sox” Freeman III at the DeWitt Student …

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College board hears nursing student’s case


After more than a year of legal wrangling, attorneys for former nursing student Desta Paris and the Northwest College Nursing Program agreed to limit discussion during a formal contested hearing Tuesday to a single issue.

That issue: Would Paris have failed the nursing program regardless of an alleged medication policy violation that resulted in her dismissal from the program on Dec. 2, 2009?

Paris, Nursing Program Director Cody Nielson, two nursing instructors and Paris’ father, Rod Paris, testified in the day-long hearing before the NWC Board of Trustees and hearing examiner S.B. “Sox” Freeman III at the DeWitt Student Center.

The hearing was opened to the public after Paris waived her right to a private hearing.

“What the evidence is going to show is that Desta Paris failed miserably in the nursing program,” NWC attorney Tracy Copenhaver said in his opening statement.

If Paris would have been dismissed for academic reasons, there is no reason to look beyond academic issues, he said.

But Paris’ attorney, Alex Sitz, said Paris was dismissed because of an incident that occurred in a clinical training visit at West Park Hospital on Dec. 1, 2009. Paris performed a PICC line dressing change, a procedure in which heparin was used to flush out an intravenous line, under a nurse’s supervision during a clinical at West Park Hospital. As a first-year student, Paris was not authorized to administer medications.

But Paris contends she should not have been discharged, as she said she was told by her nursing instructor, Jamie Mathews, that she was authorized to perform the procedure.

The dismissal was reviewed and upheld by the Student Appeals Board.

Prior to the December 2009 incident, program instructors had communicated no concerns to Paris about her grades, Sitz said.

He also questioned whether Paris was given a fair shot at completing three courses as ordered by the NWC appeals board, and whether instructors had been biased against her.

“My job is to tell you ... the rest of the story,” he said.

Board members met in executive session after the hearing to consider the testimony. The board has 30 days to issue a written ruling on the matter.

Nielson testified Paris performed so poorly in clinicals and her clinical paperwork that it would have been impossible for her to raise her grades enough, in the two weeks that remained in the fall semester, to pass.

Her highest weekly paperwork grade in clinicals as of Nov. 30 was a 62, and she hadn’t turned in two assignments, Nielson said.

Paris also had below-passing grades, by nursing program standards, in two other subjects, Nielson said. To pass a class in the program, students must score a C or higher; a C-, or lower is considered a failing grade, she said.

As of Nov. 30, Paris was passing only one of the four required courses for the first semester of the nursing program.

Given that situation, Paris would have been dismissed, along with other students who failed to meet grade and other requirements, at the end of the semester — even if she hadn’t been dismissed for other reasons, Nielson testified.

“It’s a rigorous program,” Copenhaver said in his opening statement. “There are students dismissed every semester because they can’t meet academic requirements.”

Nielson’s testimony was supported by testimony from nursing instructors Jamie Mathews and Marneé Crawford, and by more than 20 exhibits that documented Paris’ progress and communication between Paris and nursing program staff.

Paris was given 17 days in February 2010 to complete three of the four courses she had been barred from, as ordered by the appeals board. Upon completing them, she failed Pharmacology and Nursing 1, testimony and exhibits showed.

Paris and her attorney, Alex Sitz, argued a delay in completing those courses put her at a disadvantage of doing so successfully.

That two and one-half month delay made it difficult to retain the information she had learned in the semester, he said.

“If she had been able to continue on, and retain what she’d learned during the semester, she probably would not have struggled like she did,” he said.

Nielson said Paris was given the opportunity to begin completing the classes on Dec. 18, and she turned the offer down.

“On Dec. 18, over Christmas?” Sitz asked. “Do you think that was fair?”

Paris said that time didn’t work for her, because she had planned a trip with her grandmother, and had a flight scheduled for Dec. 17.

Nielson said another opportunity was offered at the beginning of the spring semester, on Jan. 19, 2010. The classes actually were opened online for her at that time, she said. But again, Paris declined.

Copenhaver asked Paris why she didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.

Paris said the letter she got from the college appeals board said she could complete them during the spring semester.

“I thought, since I had the whole semester, why not go a little slower,” Paris said. “Why not ease into it, get familiar with my spring courses?”

Nielson said Paris asked to complete the courses one at a time rather than all at once. But Nielson and the nursing faculty felt that was unfair to the other students, who had to complete the courses all at once.

Sitz asked Nielson if it was possible that instructors were biased against Paris and so graded her work lower than they normally would have.

Nielson flatly denied that supposition, saying Paris received the same professional guidance and evaluation that every other student did. She pointed to an exhibit document in which Paris complemented instructors on their communication with her during that time.

While Paris said she was given no indication earlier in the semester that she was in danger of failing her courses prior to Dec. 1, Nielson said she counseled Paris at mid-term about her performance in clinicals and pharmacology. Nielson said she advised Paris to drop a four-credit math class she was taking so she could devote more time to her nursing studies. Paris signed a form acknowledging the conversation at that time.

Paris said she also recalled visiting with her adviser about her performance in classes, but she hadn’t been alarmed.

“I knew my grades were down, but I could bring them up by taking finals,” she said. But under questioning from Copenhaver, she said she hadn’t crunched the numbers to see if that was possible.

Paris said Wednesday she allowed the hearing to be open to the public because she had nothing to hide.

“I’ve been waiting for this hearing for so long,” she said. “I’m a little frustrated that, after all this time and energy on both sides, that the hearing we had didn’t address the reason that I was dismissed.”

Her overall goal, she said, is to be readmitted into the NWC nursing program, to start over again.

“I still have a good attitude, and I still have very positive feelings toward Northwest.”

Mathews, who was Paris’ instructor when the alleged medical policy violation occurred, said she was glad she finally got a chance to talk about her side of the story.

“There’s been a lot of things said,” she said. “It’s nice to have the truth out now. It’s been a long year.”