Kaylyn Willis knew she wanted to be a nurse from the time she was 9 years old, and she is willing to take Umpqua Community College to federal court to get that opportunity.
UCC expelled Willis in February. The final straw for the college was a homework assignment Willis turned in, which was deemed “dishonest, disrespectful, or disruptive” by college administrators.
During a winter-term course called Chronic I, taught by Patrick Harris, students were asked to create weekly posts from the perspective of a person suffering from a chronic disease or disorder. In week 6, the prompt was to imagine what would happen if a person’s support system would disappear due to death, divorce or deployment/relocation.
Willis wrote a scenario in which she took on the perspective of someone with ALS who had killed their husband and was now imprisoned.
According to a grievance panel, made up of a student representative, a faculty representative, an administrator representative and a classified staff member representative, the post did not take into account the community as a result of the Oct. 1, 2015, massacre that occurred on the Umpqua Community College campus.
When Willis received a zero on the assignment she emailed her instructor. That night she received an email from college officials requesting a meeting the next day, during which she was informed that she would be dismissed from the nursing program as this was her second behavioral offense and grounds for dismissal.
“Despite all chances Ms. Willis had been given to succeed, and the warning to behave professionally for the remainder of the academic program, Ms. (April) Myler (chair of health and emergency services) concluded that Ms. Willis had demonstrated an overall pattern of acting like she did not have to comply with the rules of the Nursing Program, which was unacceptable under the professional standards,” Dee Rubanoff, a lawyer representing Umpqua Community College, wrote on Sept. 1 in response to a request to overturn the decision.
Willis said she’s getting ready to fight to make her dream come true.
“I knew, ultimately, that my goal was going to be to make a federal case out of this,” she said. “That’s how strongly I feel about it, and how much has been taken from me.”
Willis has exhausted all of her options to appeal the decision at the local level. Her latest request, with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, to get the college to reverse its decision was refused on Sept. 1.
“UCC punished Willis for submitting a story that met all the criteria,” said FIRE Program Officer Anne Marie Tamburro in a press release. “They asked her to use her imagination, then wrote off her response as a joke and kicked her out. It takes imagination to write a story about a sensitive topic, but it takes no imagination to trample someone’s rights.”
UCC President Rachel Pokrandt said she could not talk in detail about an individual student, but said the college is proud of its nursing program which boasts a 90% pass rate on the National Council Licensure Examination and sees 95% of its graduates employed in the nursing profession.
In the past five years, between fall term 2016 and spring term 2021, nine of the 295 enrolled students were dismissed from the program for behavioral issues.
A dismissal from the nursing program does not automatically exclude them from non-nursing program classes at Umpqua Community College. However, expulsion from the nursing program does mean a student cannot seek admission to any other Oregon Consortium Nursing Education.
Willis was inspired to become a nurse by watching her aunt, who was a labor and delivery nurse.
“I was just fascinated by it,” Willis said. “Fascinated. By the time I was nine, maybe 10, years old, I knew — and actually up until I started the program — that I was going to be a labor and delivery nurse. It’s where I belong.”
In the fall of 2019, Willis enrolled in the nursing program, but failed to pass a necessary exam after the first term and was unable to continue in the program despite having an 89% in the class.
When she started the nursing program, Willis also started working at CHI Mercy Medical hospital’s emergency room where she fell in love with emergency medicine.
“Emergency medicine, that’s my jam,” Willis said. “And that was my goal. I was working in the ER, I was going to UCC, and as far as I knew I was going to work at Mercy’s ER until I retired. I have it all in my head, it was all planned out.”
Willis was determined to get her degree and re-enrolled in the nursing program in the fall of 2020.
As part of the nursing program students have to submit to urine analysis. The day the sample was due, Willis was fired from her job at the hospital for “racially insensitive behavior,” according to Rubanoff.
Willis said she was fired for recording videos in the ER in April 2020 that were uploaded to the social media site TikTok. One of those videos contained language that was deemed offensive by hospital administrators and another featured someone who had not given consent to be in the video.
Not only did Willis lose her job, but she also lost her clinical placement which she needed to fulfill the requirements to obtain her nursing degree.
This resulted in a “Student in Danger of Failing and ‘first and final’ behavioral strike on Willis’ record in October 2020. She was at that point informed that she could not get any additional behavioral strikes or she would be removed from the program.
Willis also had to submit a “Plan for Success.” She missed the deadline for this and in early November, Willis met with Myler to discuss the missed deadline, as well as new complaints made by two different professors.
She was given a warning and had to write another plan, which Willis submitted on time.
One complaint was about a post Willis made referring to an “epic lady wedgie,” which was found to be unprofessional by Myler. Willis said it’s a reference to a skit from the television program Saturday Night Live.
Then the post about shooting her husband was made in her Chronic I course, which according to the grievance panel “failed to take into consideration the events of UCC’s past and the impact her post could have” as they refer to the massacre that took place on Oct. 1, 2015.
Willis said deeming her submission disrespectful to those is subjective. Another student wrote about her caregiver dying in a car crash which Willis said could also be seen as disrespectful to people who have lost someone in that way.
“Just because you have a personal reaction to it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong,” Willis said. “I just don’t want this to happen to somebody else again. It’s devastating. It’s devastating to be working for a goal as long as I had, with my future all mapped out and then within a matter of 24 hours that was gone — all of it.
“There was nothing wrong with what I wrote,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong. There was nothing offensive. I would say there was no call for violence. There was nothing wrong with what I wrote. It’s that something like that can have such a devastating impact on my future, because of how someone felt about it. Not because of what it actually was, but because of the person who read it and how they felt. I cry quite frequently for the loss of my goals and for the loss of my dreams.”
Willis appealed the original decision and appeared before a grievance panel. Her appeal was denied on May 19 by unanimous decision.
“Therefore, as this Grievance Panel unanimously agrees the discussion post in Chronic I warrant a behavioral strike, and given an additional allowance for missing her ‘Plan of Success’ deadline of October 16, there is no alternate remedy provided by this Grievance Panel,” the decision on May 19 read.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote a letter on Aug. 16 to UCC President Rachel Pokrandt, who came to the college in July 2021, arguing that Willis’ post was protected by the First Amendment and that they’d like to see the disciplinary record cleared.
Dee Rubanoff, of the law firm Pack, Rubanoff & Hatfield, responded on behalf of the college on Sept. 1 and explained why the college would not be overturning the decision.
“Ms. Myler believed it was necessary to exit Ms. Willis from the program in order to uphold those professional standards,” Rubanoff wrote.
Willis argues that she stayed true to the assignment and used an actual court case as her inspiration for the post.
Her goal now is to get her record cleared so she can attend a nearby community college, but she has no plans to move out of the area to attend school.
“We’ve owned our home in Winston for 17 years. We’re raising kids here. I can’t just pick up and move to go somewhere else to be able to go to nursing school,” Willis said. “My ultimate goal is that UCC will clear my record so that I can apply to another school. Whether it be Lane or Rogue, somewhere within driving distance is at least doable. That’s my ultimate goal: to be able to finish what I started.”