There are lessons to be learned about documentation standards and procedures requests in the latest legal battle between the federal government and a testing entity.
On October 18, 2012, a federal judge permitted the Department of Justice (DOJ) to intervene in a lawsuit filed against the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC). It is alleged that the Council’s policies, practices and procedures regarding the administration of the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) discriminates against applicants with disabilities. (See The Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Law School Admission Council, No. CV 12-1830-EMC).The alleged violations of Title III include:
With respect to documentation, DOJ takes exception to the following practices and procedures used by the Council:
DOJ specifically noted that applicants with extensive histories regarding both the diagnosis of a disability, as well as, the provision of accommodations in similar circumstances were frequently denied accommodations. It was also noted that, in addition to using evaluation standards for reviewing documentation submissions that are unclear, the Council’s denial letters are “cursory” and fail to give applicants a clear understanding of what is missing or what needs to be done to correct deficiencies in order to obtain test accommodations. DOJ also remarked upon the enormous expense incurred by applicants in order to meet the Council’s three – five year ago of documentation requirement. DOJ argues that the LSAT through its policies, practices and procedures discriminates against individuals with disabilities by “failing to administer the LSAT in an accessible manner” and utilizing a “flagging policy”.
DOJ’s brief includes detailed descriptions of the experiences of eight applicants. The complete brief can be founded on the Department of Justice’s ADA site, www.ada.gov.
One of the difficulties that institutions have in properly managing faculty participation in the accommodation process is the failure to provide direction, support and guidance to faculty members and adjuncts regarding both their responsibility and the rights of students with disabilities. To varying degrees many colleges and universities are guilty of not striking the necessary balance between traditional academic freedom protections and federal compliance mandates. Institutions cannot leave the matter of whether and to what degree students with disabilities are accommodated solely to the discretion of individual faculty members. OCR has ruled that postsecondary institutions are required “… to take steps as necessary to ensure that qualified students with disabilities are not subjected to discrimination because of the absence of educational auxiliary aids. University of Guam, No. 10072030 (OCR 2010)
There are a number of recent OCR rulings and court decisions that focus on the dynamics of the faculty-student relationship. For example:
Halpern v. West Forest University Health Sciences, 669 F.3d 454 (4th Cir. 2012) – The court responded to the assertions of a student with ADHD and an anxiety disorder that the University was required to accommodate his difficulty with meeting the professional standards adopted by the Medical School. The student’s first two academic years were marked by repeated instances of unprofessionalism (e.g., abusive behavior; lack of interpersonal skills; unapproved absences; resistance to feedback; and lack of truthfulness). When confronted regarding his behavior, the student asserted that his conduct was the result of the effects of his ADHD medication.
Following an approved medical leave to address the side effects of his medication, the student continued to exhibit unprofessional behavior. The student did not seek accommodations (test accommodations) until his third year in the program. Ultimately, in response to additional instances of unprofessionalism, the School’s academic appeals committee recommended that the student be dismissed from the program. While maintaining that he was only guilty of isolated instances of unprofessionalism, the student asserted that he should be permitted to continue in the program under a remediation plan to address his behavioral problems. The plan he proposed was that he would participate in ongoing psychiatric treatment, as well as a program for distressed physicians. He also suggested that he be placed on strict probation.
The court in upholding the School’s decision to not grant the requested accommodations made several important pronouncements. Specifically:
North v. Widener University, No. 11-6006 (E.D. pa. 2012) – A University argued that a student could not bring a complaint of being treated differently on the basis of disability because he had never officially disclosed that he had a disability. The court rejected the University’s claim by noting “[N]othing in Section 504 requires a student with a disability to provide official notification of disability in order to bring a claim for disability discrimination.” The court further noted that the fact that the student was told by a faculty member, who served as his advisor, that he should not disclosed that he had a disability because it would be “viewed as a sign of weakness and unsuitability for the program”; potentially established that “the program suffered from a culture of discrimination.”
University of Houston, No. 06112030 (OCR 2011) – A student was provided an accommodation form which listed an approved accommodation as “consider extended assignment deadlines, if necessary.” One of the professors the student presented the form to refused to sign it and expressed the opinion that the accommodation was “too general, open ended, and unreasonable.” When the student sought redress from the disability services office, he was advised by the Director that “professors … were not obligated to grant accommodations… and such a decision was to the professors’ discretion.” OCR took issue with the both the practice of permitting faculty members to make unilateral decisions concerning the accommodations students receive, as well as the fact that the University had not adopted and implemented a procedure to address situations where the disability services office and professors disagree about the accommodations to be provided students.
For a full discussion of the role of faculty in the accommodation process, join us on November 13, 2012 for the next webinar of Best Practice Series 4: Faculty Behavior: Managing Faculty Participation in the Accommodation Process.
What should be the response to accommodation requests made by parents on behalf of their son or daughter?
Can parents request accommodations on their son or daughter’s behalf without the student’s agreement and/or participation?
In Brown Mackie College, 03-04-2084 (OCR 12/10/2004), a parent requested accommodations on his son’s behalf but without his son’s active involvement. In that case, OCR ruled that the obligation of the institution to act was not triggered because the student failed to initiate the process by providing notice of his need for academic adjustments and making a specific request for accommodations. OCR has consistently ruled that it is the student’s responsibility to request academic adjustments, to adhere to the institution’s accommodation procedures and to actively participate in the process. The demands of parents do not obligate institutions to act if students fail to satisfy that responsibility. (See Brown Mackie College, supra and Texas Southern University, No. 06-02-2078 (OCR 12/06/2002)).
Therefore, if an institution is not obligated to act when a student simply never communicated a need for accommodations to the proper officials; it stands to reason that if the student objects to, denies the need for or refuses offers of accommodations the parents’ assertions that the institution must or should provide accommodations cannot trigger an obligation to act on the part of the institution. Institutions are not permitted to unilaterally act with respect to the provision of accommodations. They cannot require students to accept academic adjustments, auxiliary aids and services when students have not requested such. Northwestern Michigan College, No. 15-02-2047 (OCR 02/10/2003)).
Can parents use the fact that their son or daughter signed a written consent under FERPA to provide them information regarding their children’s educational services to insist that they are entitled to participate in all meetings to determine what accommodations are provided and/or to directly interact with faculty?
OCR has consistently ruled that institutions can adhere to policies and procedures that specifically require that students initiate the process, be active participants in the accommodation process, and maintain direct interactions with responsible institution officials. (See Doane College, No. 07092063 (OCR 2009), University of Notre Dame, No. 05-04-2113 (OCR 2004) and Brown Mackie College, 30 NDLR 207 (OCR 2004)) It is appropriate for institutions to insist that the individual who is enrolled, i.e., the student, be the frontline in these matters. Additionally, asserts by parents that their son or daughter cannot take responsibility for managing the accommodation process raises issues regarding the qualified status of the student.
It is also important to remember that written consent provided by students under FERPA only entitles parents to information regarding their sons and daughters educational program. Such consent does not entitle parents to participate in the process. Further, a grant of consent under FERPA only permit institutions to provide information to parents it does not require action on the part of institutions.
Subscribers to DisabilityDirectResponse.com can view a full discussion of best practices and a summary of pertinent cases and agency rulings on the site in the Compliance Library under Parental Involvement.