U.S. Senator Calls for College Mental Health Disability Reform
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- Sen. Edward J. Markey sent the letter the same day that Yale students filed a lawsuit alleging the school discriminates against students with mental health disabilities.
- Schools are legally obligated to observe disability laws for students with mental health disabilities and to ensure the health and safety of the campus community, the letter said.
- Markey asked the two departments to address nine questions concerning college student medical leaves of absence in writing by Dec. 20, 2022.
Many colleges' involuntary medical leave of absence policies can be coercive and exclusionary for some students with mental health disabilities, according to a U.S. senator. Now, he's asking for answers to help ensure the health and safety of all students on campus.
U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts sent a letter on Nov. 30 to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Attorney General Merrick Garland concerning involuntary medical leave of absence policies and their impact on students with mental health conditions.
The letter was sent the same day that Yale students filed a lawsuit alleging the university discriminated against students with mental health disabilities via its medical leave of absence policies.
"Current college and university policies for involuntary medical leaves of absence ('involuntary MLOAs') can unfairly exclude students with disabilities from higher education," Markey wrote. "We should not allow that to happen. No student should be denied access to education because of their disability."
Markey called on the Department of Education (ED) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to reform Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
According to the Yale lawsuit, Section 504 was one of the laws that Yale University violated. It states that individuals with disabilities "shall not, solely because of their disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
Students take involuntary MLOAs because of mental health conditions like panic attacks, eating disorders, self-harm, or suicidal ideation and attempts, according to Markey's letter.
Markey said schools have two competing legal obligations:
- Comply with disability laws for students with mental health disabilities
- Ensure the health and safety of the campus community
However, some universities cite "community disruption" as a justification for involuntary medical leaves of absence, Markey wrote.
The senator raised nine issues for ED and the DOJ to address in writing by Dec. 20, 2022:
- What consideration has ED given to involuntary MLOAs as part of 504 reform efforts?
- What data has ED compiled regarding voluntary and involuntary MLOAs?
- What demographic disparities exist related to involuntary MLOAs?
- What steps have ED and the DOJ taken to reform accommodation and MLOA policies to support students with disabilities?
- What efforts have the DOJ or ED taken to meet with student body leaders about involuntary MLOAs?
- What efforts have the DOJ or ED made to meet with students with mental health disabilities, including those who have been on involuntary MLOAs, about the issue?
- What efforts have the DOJ or ED made to meet with members of the disability community about involuntary MLOAs?
- What efforts has the DOJ made to meet with leaders of colleges and universities about involuntary MLOAs?
- What steps has the DOJ taken to ensure new policies adhere to the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504?
"College-aged students are experiencing a worsening mental health crisis," Markey wrote. "Eighty percent of college students reported the COVID-19 pandemic had negatively affected their health, and of this group, 25 percent reported increased substance use and another 25 percent acknowledged serious suicidal ideation. Involuntary-MLOA reform is badly needed to ensure that students are not punished for seeking mental health support."