Metro-East News

Woman’s suit against SIUE alleges she was kicked out of program due to her age

A Washington, Mo., woman has filed a lawsuit against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, alleging the university discriminated against her because of her age.

Jennifer Noelker, 49, alleges in the lawsuit that she was treated unfairly and was given harsher punishments than younger students for the same infraction in the nurse anesthetist program in the SIUE School of Nursing.

Noelker initially applied for the program in June 2012, and received a rejection letter in September 2012. Leslie Jones, an instructor in the nursing anesthetist program at Mercy Hospital who wrote Noelker a letter of recommendation for her application, told Noelker she wasn’t admitted because she was “too old,” according to the lawsuit. A student involved with the admissions process also told Noelker the same thing.

In April 2013, the program director, Andrew Griffin, offered her admission to the program, and she accepted. But her problems didn’t end there, the lawsuit alleges.

From 2012-2015, eight students older than 40 were accepted and enrolled in the program, according to the lawsuit. Five of those students were terminated from the program. In the same time frame, 88 students younger than 40 were accepted and enrolled, and only two were terminated.

SIUE officials said they were aware of the lawsuit, but did not comment on the pending litigation, other than saying the university will “vigorously defend its position.”

At Mercy Hospital in Washington, Mo., during the clinical care portion of the program, Noelker was repeatedly asked how old she was, according to the lawsuit. Overall, Noelker said the experience during her clinicals was positive.

After extubating a patient too early, a clinical coordinator who had previously inquired about Noelker’s age, told program administrators that Noelker lacked “critical thinking skills,” and lacked knowledge about anesthesia medications, according to the lawsuit. Shortly after, the director of the program notified her about negative feedback he had been receiving, and requested she create an academic improvement plan, even though she had an A in Pharmacology and scored above passing level on a mock certification exam.

At the same time, the lawsuit alleges a younger student in the program made a medication error and didn’t receive a grade reduction or a requirement to form an academic improvement plan.

When Noelker made a medication error in June 2015 and pulled an incorrect vial identical to the correction medication, she received a red card for the incident, which resulted in a 16 percent grade deduction. However, the lawsuit says, younger students who made identical or worse errors were not given a red card, although older students were.

The same thing happened again when a dental cap popped off a patient during a difficult procedure. The medical doctor of anesthesiology on the procedure said he didn’t know who knocked the cap off, but Noelker was issued another red card, even though, again, other younger students in the program did not receive a red card for similar errors.

Noelker was transferred to Belleville Memorial Hospital in late July 2015, where her instructor was impatient and hostile with her and became exasperated when she asked any questions, according to the lawsuit.

She was called into a meeting with the director of the program, who referred her to the Graduate Student Affairs Committee, which voted to terminate her from the program. She filed an appeal, but it was not granted. She was terminated from the program in September 2015.

The lawsuit seeks to reinstate Noelker back into the program and pay for her legal fees resulting from the suit, as well as grant any additional relief the court may deem proper.