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Webster University

Webster Hall at Webster University. PHOTO BY JORGEN GULLIKSEN/POST-DISPATCH

ST. LOUIS • A former Webster University student who was studying to be a family counselor says in a lawsuit that he was dismissed from a master's degree program after it was determined that he lacked empathy.

The suit, which claims up to $1 million in losses and seeks at least $2 million in punitive damages, alleges the school dismissed him quickly rather than help him improve his empathy to complete the field work required for graduating.

The lawsuit was filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court last week.

Webster University declined to comment.

The student, David Schwartz, 44, of University City, had received all A's and only one C in his course work, according to a school transcript. But he was dismissed from the program on March 14 after he received a "no credit" for failing to successfully complete the practicum, in which he was to apply his class work to a real-world counseling setting.

Schwartz alleges in his lawsuit that he was deemed a poor performer after he wrote an anonymous letter to the dean criticizing a professor's teaching methods and noting the romantic relationship between that professor and an administrator.

Schwartz said in an interview that he had received favorable reviews on his performance until a Feb. 24 meeting with Dr. Stacy Henning, the director of counselor education at the university, who told him he needed to improve.

In a follow-up meeting on March 3, she pointed to three taped counseling sessions that showed he "would not make a good counselor because he lacked empathy," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says Schwartz had written his letter only weeks earlier.

Susan Clauss, the program director at Family Resource Center, where Schwartz performed his field work, said she is prohibited from talking about staff or volunteer performance.

The American Counseling Association code of ethics, which is posted on Webster University's counseling department Web page, requires that counselor education programs provide remedial support for students. Those performing poorly may be required to meet with an advisory committee that can design a path for improvement.

Schwartz said that never happened with him, but he would have welcomed it.

"I'm at an age now, at 44, where I'm committed to what I'm doing professionally," he said. "I'm more than willing to improve."

Schwartz said he left his job as a computer help desk technician to join the program. Newly married, he still owes at least $70,000 in student loans.

Albert Watkins, Schwartz's attorney, said while the dismissal gave Schwartz a chance to reapply to the program, that did not seem feasible.

"It's sort of like being kicked out of a country club," he said. "Do you really want to fight to retain your membership if everybody doesn't want you?"

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