Office of Civil Rights Education Complaints
In July 2012, the Bazelon Center filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of a student at Princeton University. After the student survived an overdose of antidepressants, the University evicted him from his dorm room, prohibited him from attending classes, banned him from campus, and coerced him to voluntarily "withdraw" for a period of one year. The complaint is pending OCR investigation.
OCR has issued several decisions that address practices by institutions of higher education that discriminate on the basis of disability, including mental illness:
Georgetown University (Oct. 13, 2011): Per this decision, if the student presents a health professional’s approval for returning to college following medical leave, the school may require a second assessment only under “extraordinary circumstances” and must be able to articulate a rationale for this requirement. It violates Section 504 when the school fails to give notice of what constitutes sufficient documentation to return following medical leave, or fails to articulate its rationale for finding documentation insufficient.
- St. Joseph's College (Jan. 24, 2011): The student was suspended after she “appeared delusional” and “was behaving incoherently” in two encounters with a second student. The College was found in violation of Section 504 for a history of applying separate, unpublished emergency suspension procedure to students with perceived mental illness that offered no notice or opportunity to present evidence.
- Spring Arbor University (Dec. 16, 2010):The University could not require a student with bipolar disorder to submit medical records as a condition of return from medical leave because the University did not require students taking medical leave for other reasons to submit medical records. Petitions from students with mental illness may be handled differently only to the extent necessary to prevent direct threats to the safety of others. Admission of a student creates the presumption of qualification; subsequently, the University needs to have cause to require a student to prove that he or she is qualified. Here, no cause was found because the student withdrew voluntarily, in good academic standing, and with no disciplinary record.
- Mount Holyoke College (Jul. 18, 2008): There was no violation of Section 504 in requiring the student to take medical leave when the student presented a danger to self. Fact that no student had ever been sanctioned for suicidal or self-injurious behavior itself (including eight who remained on campus without interruption) suggested no general stereotyping on the basis of mental illness. Behavior agreement as condition of return was permissible because it only called for cessation of behaviors causing fear for safety, not complete cessation of all disability-related behavior.
- Marietta College (Mar. 18, 2005): Dismissal of the student shortly after matriculation, following disclosure of past suicide attempts, violated Section 504 because:
1. Staff psychologist’s two sessions with student were insufficient evidence to demonstrate “high probability of substantial harm” rather than “speculative” risk.
2. Student must be allowed opportunity to challenge the emergency dismissal decision. Opportunity to provide medical information as condition of return is not a substitute for this right. Compare to DeSales University below.
- DeSales University (Feb. 17, 2005): There was no Section 504 violation in the student's two-day removal from campus after staff expressed concerns about suicide risk, because the University promptly allowed the student to return upon receiving doctor’s note. Student successfully challenged removal and returned without restriction. Denial of housing for the following semester violated Section 504: although the University had legitimate concerns about disruptive behaviors, receipt of housing was conditioned on elimination of all behaviors resulting from mental illness (conditions on return or continued participation must be narrowly tailored to purpose of removing direct threat). Student was also denied opportunity to challenge the decision to impose these conditions.
- Bluffton University (Dec. 22, 2004): In involuntarily withdrawing the student after suicide attempt, the University failed to adequately assess direct threat because it “did not consult with medical personnel, examine objective evidence, ascertain the nature, duration and severity of the risk ... or consider mitigating the risk of injury.” The University also violated the minimal due process requirement because it provided the student with no notice or opportunity to be heard, refused to reconsider decision after receiving letter and phone call from treating counselor, and lacked Section 504 grievance procedure. The University's requirement that the student must submit medical documentation as condition of return violated Section 504 because only students with perceived mental illness had ever been required to submit documentation.
- Guilford University (Mar. 6, 2003): The student was involuntarily withdrawn after College’s director of counseling reported self-injurious behavior. This violated Section 504 because:
1. Although the College arguably had nondiscriminatory belief of danger due to actual self-injury by student, the direct threat evaluation was insufficient because the decision to withdraw the student was made after a single cutting episode, and the director of counseling did not attempt to contact the student’s treating psychologist.
2. The College failed to give adequate due process because (a) after student mentioned new treatment plan, she was denied any opportunity to discuss it, (b) College did not consider alternatives less severe than withdrawal, and (c) College lacked formal procedure for involuntary medical withdrawal and instead used a “voluntary” withdrawal procedure that the student could not challenge.
- Woodbury University (Jun. 29, 2001): Exclusion of a student from student housing during intersession due to prior self-injurious behavior was justified by the reasonable belief that circumstances during intersession would parallel prior triggers for self-injury. However, similar reasoning would not justify exclusion from housing during the regular semester when those triggers would not be present.University may not require blanket disclosure of all medical records as a condition for return; University may only request information addressing “particular issues of legitimate concern.”
- National University (Mar. 23, 2000): Policy that expressly allows for suspension or dismissal of students if they have or have had “emotional, psychological or personal problems” which pose an “appreciable risk” of harm to self or others or render student “unsuitable” for program may be discriminatory; risk assessments must be individualized, must identify specific behavior that creates risk, and must find a “significant risk” and not merely an “appreciable risk.” “Suitability” for a program as a criterion for dismissal of a student is impermissibly vague; academic and technical standards must be clear and “essential to the program of instruction” or “directly related to licensing requirements or professional standards.”
- San Diego Community College (Dec. 30, 1999): Use of disciplinary process to exclude student violated Sec. 504 because College failed to make objective assessment or even identify specific behavior indicative of direct threat; decisions were made on basis of uncorroborated rumors, and decision that student was a threat was made only after student had been cleared of all alleged misconduct.
- Gonzaga University (Nov. 8, 1996): The University violated Section 504 by (a) impermissibly asking about disability on the application form, and (b) requiring the applicant who disclosed disability to undergo a medical evaluation to be considered for admission. An applicant may not be subject to adverse action for refusal to provide disability-related information. Questions about disability on application forms are unlawful except for the limited purposes of remedying past discrimination and affirmative action to increase participation of persons with disabilities. Inquiries to determine necessary accommodations are allowed only after an applicant has been admitted.
- Skagit Valley College (Apr. 21, 1993): In considering the student’s petition to re-enroll, the College impermissibly relied on a stereotype of disability in rejecting the letter from health care provider stating that the student was now stable and complying with treatment, and in demanding assurance that student “would not engage in disruptive behavior in the future.” The College lacked basis to reject the letter, and had no affirmative evidence that disruptive behavior would reoccur other than diagnosis itself and an “argumentative attitude” in a phone conversation concerning status.
- Thomas M. Cooley Law School (Aug. 9, 1991): The Law School impermissibly asked about mental illness on an application form, placed an applicant with history of depression in a separate pool requiring special committee approval, requested additional information from the applicant’s psychiatrist, and used mental illness as grounds to reject the applicant despite an academic record that would normally merit automatic admission. Questions about disability on application forms are unlawful except for the limited purposes of remedying past discrimination and affirmative action to increase participation of persons with disabilities. The Law School must indicate that the question is optional and may not deny admission or place additional requirements on an applicant on the basis of a disability.
- Western Washington University (Jun. 19, 1991): The University suspended the student from RA position after a psychiatric hospitalization, rejected letter from the treating physician, and demanded “extensive evaluation” by “a qualified mental health professional” because the University considered the general practice physician unqualified to do the psychological evaluation. This violated Section 504 because the University failed to articulate grounds for demanding additional evaluation: no recurring behavior concerns, no consultation with another professional to determine validity of doctor’s opinion, and no attempt to contact doctor to determine basis of opinion. The University must have good cause to demand a second psychological evaluation.
Students, parents or others who believe that an educational institution has discriminated against someone on the basis of disability can file a complaint with the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights within 180 days of the date of the alleged discrimination. See How to file a Complaint with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.