Rutgers University Settles With OCR Regarding Student Removed from School Due to Mental Illness

Category: Private Education Matters
Date: Jun 29, 2018 11:29 AM

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, pertaining to public educational entities.  It is analogous to Title III, which governs private schools and universities.  

During the 2016-2017 school year, the student in question was enrolled in the University’s School of Engineering.  In the spring semester, she was hospitalized on three occasions, dealing with mental health issues. She emailed the Program Director that summer and asked about changing her grades to reflect approved absences.  She was told in response that she was being involuntarily removed from the University. 

The University maintains a Safety Intervention Policy dealing with the involuntary removal of students who pose a credible risk of harm to individuals in the community. There is a process that governs the steps that must be pursued before a student can be withdrawn. OCR determined the process itself was neutral on its face, as it applies in the same manner regardless of whether the student has a disability and allows for an individualized assessment.  

This student had asked that the University allow her to make up missed assignments and lab work.  But shortly thereafter, the University informed her that her appeal of her withdrawal was denied. Ultimately, during OCR’s investigation, the University decided it was in its best interest to reach some sort of agreement to voluntarily resolve the student’s complaints.  

Part of the settlement holds that the University must conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether this student may return to class in accordance with the Safety Intervention Policy.  The University also must analyze what possible reasonable modifications might sufficiently mitigate any risk posed by the student.  If the University concludes that she is no longer a risk, or there are reasonable measures that might be taken to reduce the risk, she will be re-admitted. The University also must offer her the chance to make up her course work if she is re-enrolled. If she is not re-enrolled, the University will offer her the chance to have her “F” grades changed to Withdraw. 

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Although the details are vague in the settlement agreement, there are at least two good lessons from this case. The first is that OCR pointed out that the University’s safety assessment policy was neutral, as it treated students the same whether they had a disability or not, and allows for individualized assessment depending on the facts and circumstances of each student’s case.  Second, the University agreed that if the student was not re-admitted, she at least would have the option of having her transcript show that she withdrew instead of that she failed. Sometimes, when settling difficult matters like this one, it helps for schools and colleges to be flexible on how to notate incomplete classwork fora student while still being accurate about the records.  

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