A former nursing student at Nashville's private, predominantly female Aquinas College says a handful of school instructors and administrators belonging to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia waged an academic war against him. He claims they dragged him through unfounded disciplinary hearings, tarnished his reputation and ultimately ejected him from the nursing program — all because he accused the school of discrimination based on his gender.
When contacted, a spokesman for Aquinas said only that the college had done nothing improper and declined to comment further. But the student, Jason Blizzard, says his treatment at Aquinas is symptomatic of an isolated, monastic order resistant to changing times. His response is thoroughly modern: a lawsuit alleging reverse discrimination by the nursing school.
Filed in U.S. District Court under the umbrella of the Equal Opportunity in Education Act — an anti-bias law known as Title IX that applies to any school that receives federal funding — the complaint seeks unspecified damages for discrimination and retaliation, detailing a series of alleged attempts by school officials to blackball the then-34-year-old Blizzard from the nursing program.
According to the complaint, Blizzard's troubles began in August 2009, at the beginning of his third semester. He'd initially received a clinical assignment for Centennial Medical Center on Patterson Street, just a short drive from his home. But on Aug. 19, the first day of class, he was told that he'd have to travel to the Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin — some 40 miles away.
Blizzard asked his clinical instructor about the change, the filing says, and was told a "male-to-male swap" was required. Another male student had previously been assigned to Gallatin, and was being placed in Centennial instead. It isn't clear why the student's replacement at Gallatin had to be a man. There were 65 students in the nursing program, Blizzard says — only five of them men.
Blizzard thought singling him out for the last-minute change based on his sex alone was discriminatory. According to the complaint, he conveyed as much to his instructor's supervisor, nursing program director Peggy Daniel. It wasn't necessarily that Blizzard was a troublemaker — but he was no pushover, either.
Unlike most of his classmates — about 90 percent female, most fresh out of high school — Blizzard was a former corporate accountant. He'd moved to Nashville from Modesto, Calif., to pursue dreams of Music Row, which eventually gave way to more practical concerns. He didn't apply to Aquinas to become a bedside nurse. Instead, Blizzard wanted to work on the compliance side — traveling from hospital to hospital, checking for adherence to the intricate patchwork of local and federal regulations.
Savvy and mindful of the rules, Blizzard wasn't about to drive nearly an hour just because he happened to be one of a handful of dudes in a program populated with women. According to his lawsuit, though, he met his match in Peggy Daniel.
Blizzard alleges that Daniel told him the "swap" was school policy and "became very hostile and argumentative." In his telling, she gave him an ultimatum: Go to Gallatin or don't — he wouldn't be reassigned. Daniel did not respond to a request for an interview.
Forced to take his grievance up to the next rung, Blizzard filed a complaint with Daniel's immediate supervisor, Sister Thomas More, who is no longer with the school. More, the complaint says, refused to meet Blizzard. She must have relayed the message to Daniel, however, because later that afternoon he claims Daniel called him at his residence, screaming, "My decision stands. ... I will not be told what to do!"
Blizzard immediately called the college to report Daniel. The filing notes he was told to contact the director of student affairs, Suzette Telli. Early in the evening, Telli allegedly left a voicemail saying she would meet with him, but only after he attended a meeting set for the next day.
Early that morning, the lawsuit alleges, More approached Blizzard in the hallway before class at Aquinas and told him she had a "stack of complaints"regarding his conduct, and that they would be used against him during a hearing scheduled for that afternoon. Blizzard says he was told he had no right to representation by a student advocate. He refused to attend, according to the filing, because contrary to school policy he hadn't received a formal complaint.
Some three weeks later, getting nowhere, Blizzard sent a formal written complaint alleging discrimination to Aquinas College President Sister Mary Peter, naming Daniel, More and Telli. (Peter did not respond to a request for an interview.) The next day, the filing says, Aquinas administrators "demanded" he appear at another disciplinary hearing to deal with the alleged complaints against him. His quarrel with the school, Blizzard says he was told, would be dealt with at another time.
As he stepped into the hearing, Blizzard says he was stunned to see nearly all of the women he'd filed grievances against sitting on the disciplinary panel, along with Sister Mary Caritas, then vice president of administrative affairs.
Blizzard recorded the hearing. At no point, the lawsuit alleges, did the panel produce any written complaints against him. Still, Blizzard was placed on probation and ordered to attend mandatory anger-management counseling at his own expense. Caritas, who authored a letter outlining the decision, allegedly wrote that the discrimination charges Blizzard had leveled against Daniel were unfounded. Contacted by the Scene, Caritas declined to comment.
Blizzard also taped the counseling sessions he began in November 2009 with Sandra Wills, the school's mental health counselor. Wills, he claims, told him he fit "the profile" of men who often wind up at loggerheads with Aquinas instructors: "Tall, big in stature, handsome and not intimidated. ..."
Based on the characterization she'd been given by Aquinas staff, Wills had expected "the Hulk, who would rip door panels down, because he was so big," according to the recording cited in the filing. She wasn't surprised that the description was exaggerated. Blizzard tells the Scene Wills admitted that female students have been known to conspire with administrators to oust male students by making false reports — an admission that fits what he describes as an institutionalized antipathy toward men at the cloistered college. Other men at the school, he claims, faced similar treatment.
Wills did not respond to multiple messages by press time.
"They're in a bubble," Blizzard tells the Scene. "They're not aware of the world outside of Aquinas College."
At the end of their mandated sessions, he claims Wills told him she wouldn't charge him for the counseling, contrary to the mandate of the disciplinary panel. Blizzard, she advised, should try to "fly under the radar" from here on out.
That proved to be difficult.
By Feb. 10, 2010, he'd filed another complaint against instructor Lydia Grubb for harassment. Grubb, the filing claims, accused Blizzard in front of other students and staff of intentionally neglecting a patient by leaving the patient in soiled linens since 6 o'clock that morning. Blizzard disputes Grubb's written report because he didn't arrive at the clinical site until 6:30 a.m. — and even then, it wasn't until 7 a.m. that he began caring for patients.
The following month, Blizzard met with Grubb and nursing professor Theresa McLean to contest his unfavorable clinical evaluation. The meeting, which he also recorded, became heated. Blizzard lodged a verbal complaint against Grubb for violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and patient privacy laws — most notably because he said she'd mishandled used blood infusion bags, "dropping them several times on the floor," "spreading them around on tables and desks" and not using gloves during a demonstration.
He says Grubb offhandedly admitted to the violations. According to him, in reference to the harassment charge, she said, "I don't agree with what you said in your complaint against me, so consider that done."
That was it, he said. No more discussion about his complaint. They didn't seem to be taking his OSHA complaint seriously, either — at least not then.
"The culture over there is draconian," he said of Aquinas.
Two days later, on March 4, Blizzard filed a "matter-of-record" complaint with Metro police, referring to his ongoing dispute with the school and a "slanderous note" he found in his campus mailbox. It isn't clear that the note is connected with his dust-up with school officials. According to the police report, it read, "You whiney gay faggot ass." The report contains no other names or suspects.
Blizzard received another letter from nursing program director Peggy Daniel on March 8, detailing new charges Grubb had made against him, the filing indicates. The letter accused him of falsifying a patient's medication record at St. Thomas Hospital the day he'd filed his harassment complaint, allegedly found during an audit of his work conducted by Grubb and Daniel.
The following day, Blizzard was yanked from his clinical rotation and into a disciplinary hearing regarding the charge. Daniel read aloud a letter stating Blizzard was being dismissed from the nursing program. According to Blizzard's recordings, the meeting ended abruptly when members of the disciplinary panel found out they would be on tape.
Blizzard received another letter from Sister Caritas on March 12, the filing says. New written complaints against Blizzard had surfaced. If any were true, the letter allegedly threatened, he'd be expelled from Aquinas College. The school held another hearing a week later, but on the advice of a previous attorney, Blizzard didn't attend. His current attorney, Thomas J. Hendrickson, would only say that "these are serious allegations, and Mr. Blizzard is looking forward to his day in court."
Blizzard claims he sent a letter in response to Caritas, asking why they'd hold any hearing at all. He'd already been dismissed from the nursing program, and he wasn't enrolled in any classes at the college. As far as he was concerned, the matter was finished — or was it?
The day the hearing was to take place, someone submitted an anonymous complaint to OSHA, detailing the reckless handling of blood bags by Grubb — the very thing Blizzard had accused her of during the last hearing. Blizzard declined to say whether he's the one who contacted OSHA. On March 23, Blizzard read a letter from the Tennessee Division of Occupational Safety and Health regarding an anonymous complaint that cited Grubb's handling of the blood bags and the school's response, which included cleaning the desks and disposing of the bags.
Two days later he received another letter from Caritas chastising him for failing to appear at the disciplinary hearing.
Then, on April 9, three cars carrying four Aquinas College employees showed up at Blizzard's house, claiming they'd arrived to hand-deliver letters from the school's administration, the complaint says. Among those in the cars, Blizzard says, was head of campus security Alan Bradley, who did not respond to an interview request. This struck Blizzard as odd, since most of his correspondence with Aquinas officials had been through email and mail. According to Blizzard, he told them all to get off of his property and never return.
But three days later, Blizzard claims Bradley returned while he was out and told Blizzard's fiancée he was delivering another letter from the school. She ordered him off the property. Blizzard called the police, who advised him to post "No Trespassing" signs in the yard, the complaint says.
Tim Stransky, a vice president for institutional advancement at the Dominican Campus who spoke on behalf of Aquinas, would only tell the Scene, "As far as the college is concerned, we haven't done anything unlawful or improper regarding Mr. Blizzard and don't feel that any other comment is appropriate at this time."
Blizzard attended a disciplinary hearing on April 16, 2010, regarding the alleged complaints against him. But once again, he says, no such complaints were produced. He met with William Smart, a biologist and the school's director of liberal arts, who was charged with conducting the investigation into Lydia Grubb's allegations that Blizzard tampered with patient records. Smart warned him, Blizzard claims, that it appeared he'd be permanently barred from the nursing program based on a cursory investigation of the charges. Blizzard claims he told Smart of a glitch in the computer record system that could exonerate him — and perhaps allow him to earn the degree he'd been working toward. The administrator said he'd look into it. Smart didn't respond to an interview request.
A week later, the verdict came down: There was no basis for his dismissal, the complaint says. Blizzard would be allowed to complete his associate's degree in nursing.
There was a catch, though. Blizzard wasn't allowed to set foot on campus. Caritas informed him in a letter that his probation would continue, and that he'd have to make up the coursework he'd missed during his dismissal from the program, the suit claims. Months later, he received his diploma. To date, though, Blizzard says he hasn't received the authorization from Aquinas to take an exit exam required by the state — one he says the State Board of Nursing told him he was qualified to take.
With $40,000 in outstanding student loans and no nursing license with which to earn a living, the lawsuit says Blizzard was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
"It was absolutely the worst experience of my life," he tells the Scene.
Blizzard is seeking unspecified damages for money spent on classes during his expulsion, breach of contract, malicious prosecution and Title IX charges under the Equal Opportunity in Education Act. A case management conference with U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger has been scheduled for May 16.
As of press time, no attorney for Aquinas had filed a notice of appearance or responded to the complaint.