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The U.S. Justice Department reached a settlement with Brown University after students who took medical leaves for mental health reasons were refused readmission, even after their doctors cleared them to return.
A department investigation found that Brown broke the law by denying readmission to dozens of undergraduates who sought to return to campus after taking mental health leaves between fall 2012 and spring 2017, according to an announcement from the department on Tuesday. Students were allegedly denied readmission even when treatment providers confirmed that they were prepared to continue their studies. Students were also forced to remain on leave for at least two semesters, regardless of what their doctors recommended.
The department claims Brown violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guarantees people with disabilities equal access to public institutions' programs and services and requires colleges and universities to make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. "Students with disabilities deserve access to equal opportunity to help ensure that they can achieve their educational goals," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said in the settlement announcement. "The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that colleges and universities do not exclude students on the basis of their disability or because they took time to receive the treatment they needed to thrive."
Under the terms of the settlement, Brown will need to pay $684,000 to compensate students who were denied readmission. The institution will give ADA training to all faculty and staff members involved in decisions about students taking or returning from medical leave. It will also need to revise its undergraduate medical leave policies.
If Brown denies a student readmission, it owes the student a "a detailed written explanation," the settlement says. Brown also needs to supply the federal government with a report every July and December for three years with documentation related to any decision to deny an undergraduate's return from a mental health related leave.
"While we are confident that our prior policies and procedures complied with federal law, we believe that today's settlement offers a more productive resolution than a protracted litigation process that would require financial and time investments that are better reserved for supporting student success on campus," Cass Cliatt, Brown's senior vice president for communications, wrote in an email.
Nance Roy, chief clinical officer at the Jed Foundation, an organization focused on young adult mental health, said it's "unusual" for a university to deny a student's request to return from medical leave if a health professional cleared it.
"It's usually left to the provider that they're seeing because they're the ones who know them the best and know their status, whether it's for a physical condition or a mental health condition," she said. "While the college has an understanding of what their condition looked like while they were at school, they don't have a current pulse on where they are once they're away and are getting treatment."
She noted, however, that sometimes student complaints about the required length of leaves can be complicated by continuing academic or disciplinary probations, even if a student is healthy enough to return.
Richard Myrus, acting U.S. attorney for the District of Rhode Island, thanked Brown for its willingness to make the changes outlined in the settlement.
"Instead of imposing extra barriers on students seeking to return to campus from medical leave, universities must reasonably accommodate students who are treating their mental health disabilities," he said in the department announcement. "The policies that Brown has agreed to implement should serve as a timely reminder to other colleges and universities to ensure that their medical leave policies must not discriminate against students with mental health disabilities."
Cliatt noted that the Justice Department reviewed medical leave policies in effect at Brown prior to "comprehensive changes" made by the university in August 2017. Since then, about 98 percent of students who applied to return to campus after a medical leave were approved to return, she said.
The university's current policy requires an individual assessment of each student who wants to come back after a medical leave. Any student with a disability who takes an official pause for a set length of time can request to restart their studies earlier than originally planned or extend their leave. The policies apply to students taking leaves related to both mental and physical health.
Policies that require students to take medical leave for a specific time frame still exist but are increasingly less common at colleges and universities, Roy said. She expects higher education institutions that still have these requirements to abandon them in response to the settlement -- or at least to add an appeals process.
Different health conditions, physical and mental, require different periods of recuperation, and it would "make no sense" to tell a student with a physical condition to delay their academic progress if a doctor confirmed it was all right, she said. "You really need to have parity between the requirements for students going out on a physical health leave … versus mental health reasons," she said. "You need to treat any ADA issue in the same way."
This isn't the first time the Justice Department reached a settlement with a higher education institution over disputed mental health leaves. The department settled with the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in 2016 after a master's student reported that she was forced to take an additional medical leave upon returning from a voluntary two-week leave to address mental health challenges. It also struck a 2015 settlement with Quinnipiac University in Connecticut after a student who suffered from depression was placed on a mandatory leave.
"While well-intentioned, many, many schools have work to do on their medical leave policies and their return from medical leave policies, not because they're trying to be punitive or discriminatory but oftentimes, they just haven't necessarily thought through all of the caveats they need to be thinking about," Roy said. "The bottom line is what's in the best interest of the student?"