A recent lawsuit against Quinnipiac University has highlighted gaps in the laws surrounding forced withdrawal policies.
In December, the Department of Justice settled a lawsuit involving Quinnipiac University and a former student, regarding the school’s decision to place her on mandatory withdrawal after she visited the university’s counseling center for depression.
The suit, first filed after the initial incident 2011, alleged that Quinnipiac violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not considering reasonable accomodations — such as allowing the student to take classes from home — before forcing her to withdraw.
“[This case] is the first of its kind in Connecticut to be settled by the Department of Justice, and I think it absolutely sets a precedent,” said Nancy Alisberg, managing attorney at the Connecticut Office for Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, which brought the case on behalf of the student. “It is hopefully making clear to universities that they … can’t treat students with mental illness any differently than they’d treat a student with a physical illness.”
But higher education experts and lawyers said that the reality facing universities is often more complicated. Laws governing when a student must be removed from campus are often unclear and provide little guidance to institutions on how to deal with students suffering from mental health issues, they said.
According to Gary Pavela, a law and policy consultant and a fellow of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, federal law clearly states that a school cannot have a blanket rule mandating that any student who threatens suicide leave campus. Instead, universities must consider particular circumstances that would justify such a decision, he said.
University Spokesman Tom Conroy agreed, saying that mandatory withdrawals from Yale are made on a case-by-case basis in consultation with health professionals.
“Such decisions are not based on concerns regarding University liability but instead on whether the student poses a direct threat to his or her safety or to the safety of the community,” Conroy said in an email.
Yet the manner in which universities make decisions about forced withdrawal can vary widely, and experts suggested that universities lack clear direction from the ADA to determine when it is appropriate to force a student to withdraw.
“Unfortunately, the law is less than clear on this,” Laura Rothstein, a law professor at the University of Louisville who specializes in disability law, said. “The regulations for the ADA are silent as to whether a university can permissibly take action when a student is engaging in self harm. The position of the Department of Education, however, appears to be that such action would be viewed as violating the ADA. This would not only apply to removal from campus, but any action.”
Chief of Yale Health Mental Health and Counseling Lorraine Siggins did not return multiple requests for comment.
All outside experts interviewed agreed that legal issues should not be at the heart of conversations about how universities treat students who pose a threat to themselves or others.
Tod Massa, policy research and data warehousing director for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said students who must take time away from school for mental health reasons should be treated in the same manner as students with physical medical issues. Massa said developing a protocol that applies in every mental health case is like treating all students with physical disabilities the same way.
“Schools try to establish policies that handle the general situation but they often miss individual cases,” Massa said. “The solution is to have a policy that has guidelines but that build in a little bit of latitude to adjust things when they don’t fit particular circumstances.”
David Rosen LAW ’69, a New Haven attorney and visiting lecturer in law, said there is a tension between students’ rights to be treated as adults and the University’s duty to protect them. The latter, however, is more difficult to define, as it is unclear what, if any, special legal obligation universities bear to assure the student’s wellbeing beyond the duties they have as providers of medical care, housing and the like.
Rosen said that except in truly limited circumstances the university would not be legally responsible for a tragedy such as a suicide.
But Pavela said that conversations about schools’ legal liability often fail to consider whether students should be forced to withdraw at all.
Multiple studies, Pavela said, have demonstrated that college students commit suicide at significantly lower rates than college-age students who are not in school. Universities appear to have a protective effect on vulnerable students, he said.
“The policy issue is, what is our goal in removing a student who appears to pose a threat to self?” Pavela said. “Is the goal to protect the student? If [that] is the goal, I would argue that removing the student in all likelihood is more likely to endanger the student.”