A new report from a disability-inclusion foundation has blasted Ivy League schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, for discriminating against students with mental illness. It claims the colleges are forcing students to leave campus against their will and without medical justification to protect the schools from legal liability and bad press.

The report, released in December by the Ruderman Family Foundation, graded the leave of absence policies at all eight Ivy League universities. None scored higher than a D-plus.

“Leave-of-absence policies, as they are currently being implemented, are exacerbating the college mental-health crisis,” concluded the report from the Boston-based philanthropy.

According to the American College Health Association, 40 percent of undergraduates have felt severely depressed in the last year and more than 10 percent have seriously considered suicide. Yet many college counseling centers are understaffed, with often less than one mental-health clinician for every 1,000 students.

Against this backdrop, the issue of how long students with mental-health issues should be allowed to stay on campus and when they need to be removed has become increasingly contentious. Many say the lack of resources justifies colleges' sending students home if they are at risk of harming themselves or others. But disability advocates say universities are applying leave policies too broadly, prioritizing school image over students’ well-being.

“It became clear universities are not supporting students,” said Miriam Heyman, author of the report and a senior program officer at the foundation. “They’re pushing students out.”

The result can be students refusing to seek care for fear of exclusion, Heyman added.

Princeton rebutted the report, saying it is “fully committed to supporting the health and well-being of our students, especially when they consider, take, and return from leaves of absence. This report misstates our policies, mischaracterizes how they are applied, and ignores the holistic approach the university takes to assist our students in these situations.”

About 150 to 180 students of the more than 5,000 undergraduates at Princeton take a leave of absence each year for various reasons, university officials said. In three to five cases a year, the university asks students who aren’t considering a leave to consider taking one — a practice disability rights advocates consider coercion. If the student refuses but the university determines their safety is at risk, the student can be forced to leave. Princeton says this situation has not occurred in the last five years.

The University of Pennsylvania declined to comment. On its website, Penn says about 5 percent of students take a leave of absence each year for various reasons. It was not clear whether that includes involuntary leaves.

The Ruderman report judged each university’s leave policies on 15 criteria chosen by lawyers and mental-health experts, including whether a student on leave is allowed to visit campus or if there is a mandatory minimum length of time for the leave.

For each criterion, the schools received a score of one (problematic), two (room for improvement), or three (best practice), and the scores were then tallied for a total out of 45 points. Each school’s total score was divided by 45 to get a percentage, which was then translated into an academic grade.

Researchers chose to focus on Ivy League schools because of their elite status and the expectation that their policies can set a standard for others to follow.

Penn received a score of 31 out of 45, or a D-plus — the highest of the group. Princeton scored 29 out of 45, a D. The rest of the schools were graded as follows: Brown University (D); Columbia University (D); Cornell University (D-minus); Dartmouth College (F); Harvard University (D-minus); and Yale University (F).

Making reasonable accommodations

Taking leaves of absence can be important for students with mental illness to focus on recovery and return to campus prepared to handle stress, Heyman said. But “ambiguous, if not discriminatory” policies are allowing universities to impose leaves on students when less drastic alternatives should be tried first.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires universities to make reasonable accommodations for students with mental illness. But many colleges, including Penn, do not mention that in their policies.

“That is a big deal,” said Shane Owens, a New York-based psychologist who works with college students and young adults. Though he believes colleges should have the right to ask students to leave, they should consider other options first, he said.

In 2014, a student sued Princeton, claiming the school violated the ADA by refusing to provide reasonable accommodations after he attempted suicide. Karen Bower, a co-author on the Ruderman report, is one of the student’s attorneys.

According to the lawsuit, the 20-year-old sophomore, referred to as W.P., had swallowed pills and then walked to the student health center to receive medical attention. When he was released from the hospital, the university told him he needed to take a leave.

W.P. instead asked to live off campus or take a reduced course load. But he was told those conditions would “fundamentally alter the nature of a Princeton education.”

Princeton disputes that narrative.

The lawsuit led the U.S. Department of Justice to review Princeton’s policies. Though it “did not make any findings of noncompliance,” the department asked Princeton to update its policy to better explain options for students with disabilities.

Considering students a ‘community disruption’

Another shortcoming of Ivy League university policies noted in the report is the use of “community disruption” as grounds for an involuntary leave of absence.

The practice, which is in Penn’s policies but not Princeton’s, can be interpreted very broadly, Heyman said. If a parent requests a wellness check on a student and campus police enter a dorm room to do so, that can be considered a community disruption.

It’s also a legally dubious practice, as a 2007 court case on workplace discrimination found that “conduct resulting from a disability is part of the disability and not a separate basis for termination.”

Owens, the New York psychologist, said the fact that the policy is vague means what really matters is how it’s enforced — something the Ruderman report did not examine.

The researchers "talk about the high-profile cases where policies are enforced and bad things happened, but what about all the times they enforce policies and there were good cases?” Owens said.

And there are success stories. In 2016, Devin Trotter was placed on leave three months into his freshman year at Penn after attempting suicide. He returned a year later, only to be placed on leave again within days, for risk of suicide.

Devin Trotter, 20, plans to return to Penn in January after spending a year and a half on leave for mental-health reasons.
Devin Trotter, 20, plans to return to Penn in January after spending a year and a half on leave for mental-health reasons.

“When I was first placed on leave, I thought Penn was making a mistake,” said the 20-year-old, currently living with his family in Los Angeles. “But now, I know it was something that was necessary for me to go through.”

Leave gave Trotter time to go to rehab for alcohol-use disorder, learn to deal with setbacks in healthy ways, and prioritize his health.

He plans to return to Penn in January. “Now, I’m even more prepared to come back,” he said.