Dismissed nursing student wants to know her rights

A nursing student submitted a question about what her rights are after being dismissed from her nursing education program four months before graduation.

The student did not include why she was being dismissed from the program, so my response cannot address that, but I provide a general response about the student’s rights. Generally, if you’re a nursing student your rights in a dismissal proceeding depends on, first and foremost, if you are in a public post-secondary nursing education program or in a private nursing education program.

Public education programs

If you are in a public college or university, your rights are dictated by the U.S. Constitution and case law interpreting your rights under the Constitution. Because you don’t leave the Constitution’s protections at the entryway of your academic campus, your rights follow you throughout the program.

Insofar as dismissal from a program is concerned, the nursing program’s student handbook spells out your rights vis-à-vis the Constitution. They include:

  1. Notice of the reason for the dismissal.

  2. The right to a hearing before the dismissal occurs.

  3. Notice of the time and place of the dismissal hearing.

  4. The right to present witnesses in your favor.

  5. The right to a written decision by the academic program.

  6. In most instances, the right to legal representation at the hearing.

These rights are called due process rights. Because the law sees graduating from an educational program as a “property right” (ending in licensure), certain protections must be provided to the student to ensure that a dismissal is not “arbitrary, capricious or discriminatory.”

You might wonder what the terms “arbitrary, capricious or discriminatory” mean. An example of an arbitrary decision would be if it were illogical, subjective or made by chance. If you were dismissed without a solid, objective or valid reason, and you could prove this, the dismissal would not be upheld by a court. A capricious decision of dismissal is one that is not predicted, is impulsive and is erratic. A nursing education program that makes fanciful decisions about who remains in the program and does not follow past decisions and its handbook would not be able to defend such a dismissal. Discriminatory dismissal decisions are ones in which you are treated differently and not in accordance with the student handbook. If you are a male student and more demands are placed on you in your clinical and classroom requirements than female fellow students and you cannot meet these requirements and are dismissed, this can be seen by the courts as a discriminatory dismissal.

In addition, because a dismissal may prevent you from entering another nursing education program and meet your ultimate goal of graduation and licensure, the proceedings governing the dismissal must pass constitutional protections so that your “liberty interest” in doing so are not violated.

Private education programs

If, in contrast, you are a student in a private nursing education program, your rights consist of what the academic institution provides you with. As a result, student rights in private programs vary considerably and are spelled out in the student handbook.

Whatever protections surrounding dismissal from the program are granted by the institution must be adhered to. The student handbook becomes the touchstone of how the nursing program handles a dismissal.

If the dismissal is not consistent with the student handbook and past dismissal decisions, it can be seen as arbitrary, capricious or discriminatory. As a result, it would not be upheld if you were to challenge the dismissal in court.

The protections accorded by both a public and private post-secondary nursing program apply to you as a student in all nursing education programs at whatever level.

Take advantage of resources

The student who submitted the question asked where she could obtain more information about her rights when dismissed from a program. The first resource for anyone in this situation would be a nurse attorney or attorney who concentrates his or her practice in education law and who represents students. Obtaining a consultation as quickly as possible will help determine how to proceed in challenging the dismissal and obtaining legal representation in the dismissal proceedings.

Because the student who submitted her question is in an initial nursing education program, she also could utilize her membership in the National Student Nurses Association.

Along with its many benefits, the association advocates for the rights of nursing students and has several publications that may be helpful, including the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities of Students of Nursing.

Nursing education programs have an obligation to ensure students enrolled in their programs fulfill all requirements of the program, including grade point averages, clinical competencies and adherence to its established student code of conduct.

The programs also have an obligation to adhere to the protections afforded students and to be fair, reasoned and principled when considering a dismissal of a student its program.

For more information about your rights as a college or university student at any educational level (e.g., BS, MS, PhD), read “What College Students Should Know About Their Rights On Campus.”

Courses related to nurses’ rights and responsibilities:

CE655: The Nurses’ Bill of Rights
(1 contact hr)

The American Nurses Association (ANA) held a nursing staffing summit in Washington, D.C., in 2000. In a survey preceding the summit, 75% of nurses reported the quality of nursing care at their facilities had declined because of inadequate staffing and decreased nurse satisfaction. More than 200 summit attendees determined the need for a document to detail what nurses need and deserve to do the best for their patients. This need served as the impetus for the Nurses’ Bill of Rights, which was approved by the ANA board of directors in 2001. The Nurses’ Bill of Rights is a statement of professional rights rather than a legal document. It establishes an informal covenant between nurses and their employing institutions to help guide organizational policy and to focus discussions between nurses and employers on issues related to patient care and working conditions. Nurses can advocate more effectively for patients’ rights when they have critical information about their own rights. Not every nurse is familiar with the Nurses’ Bill of Rights or related rights described …read more

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