3 Ways You Are Mishandling Involuntary Leaves

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Interview originally conducted in October 2014.

Addressing issues of self-harm can be tricky and complicated for institutions. The complexities lie in the conundrum between providing appropriate support to students who engage in self-harming behaviors and complying with regulatory action propagated by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

To help your institution enhance support for students while remaining in compliance with the law, we interviewed an expert on student mental health: Greg Eells, Associate Director of Gannett Health Services and Director of Counseling & Psychological Services at Cornell University. Dr. Eells is the chair-elect of the mental health section of the American College Health Association (ACHA) and a past president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD).

Interview with Greg Eells

Lisa LaPoint: Greg, thank you for this conversation. What are three potential ways that colleges and universities mishandle involuntary leaves?

Greg Eells: There are three that are especially common.

The first is applying policies in a way that only apply to students with known disabilities. This issue was at the heart of the original OCR letter to Spring Arbor University, where the university established a different criteria for readmission (after the student had taken a voluntary leave) than was generally applied to other students. This is why it may be advisable to name an involuntary leave policy and then have voluntary health leave policies where the student acknowledges a condition, and the involuntary policy is about observed behavior.

The second is not engaging in a case-by-case analysis. Policies are ideally written to offer guidance for an individualized assessment that takes into consideration the best medical evidence available to assess the student in an agreed upon process. This approach was affirmed in OCR’s letter to SUNY Purchase where they had clear policies that applied to all students and incorporated a direct threat analysis that included an individualized assessment.

The third is creating a policy that somehow favors involuntary leaves over voluntary leaves. OCR was clear in its writing to Georgetown University that voluntary leaves are preferable and that strong due process procedures must be put in place that focus on the student’s ability to resume their duties as a student, and should not require employment or other conditions. OCR also supports the inclusion of other due process measures like a clear appeal process.

Lisa LaPoint: What can institutions do to properly handle involuntary leaves?

Greg Eells: The following should be included in your involuntary leave policy:

  • Clear applicability to all students
  • The establishment of a team/committee to review information and conduct an individualized assessment
  • The inclusion of well-developed voluntary health leave policies that can be implemented to avoid an involuntary leave
  • An emphasis on the disruption to the educational environment and observed behavior in the policy as reason to enact the policy rather than an emphasis on direct-threat to self
  • Clear policies made known to students with specific due process issues addressed, such as a clear appeals process

Lisa LaPoint: Thank you, Greg!