For involuntary leave policies, colleges turn to the law


Meg Britton-Mehlisch

Content Warning: Matias Sosa-Wheelock’s death affected all members of the campus community differently, depending on individual experiences that night, in the days following or with mental health and mental healthcare at other points in their lives. This special report includes in-depth reporting on the response to Sosa-Wheelock’s death as well as the state of mental health and healthcare on campus more broadly. While we have refrained from including graphic details, it may nonetheless be difficult to read. Before beginning, please be aware.

For a list of support resources on and off campus, visit this page.

“If you go to any campus, this is a policy on every single campus,” Vice President for Student Affairs Donna Lee said.

This is the administration’s response to student concern over Macalester’s involuntary leave policy, which allows the college to remove students who are found to be a risk to the safety of themselves or others.

The Mac Weekly was able to confirm that every college within the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities network has a similar involuntary leave policy. Still, Lee acknowledged that the conversation around the clause can and should change.

“I think the [policy] needs to be worded in a way that people don’t see it as a disciplinary issue, but that it is about ensuring somebody’s health and well-being and the well-being of the community,” she said.

Involuntary leave policies across the nation are a result of educational institutions walking a fine line between balancing student health concerns and complying with a litany of federal obligations. Fail to walk that line, and college administrators risk violating civil rights laws.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established legal protections for individuals with disabilities.

Employing broad definitions, the act protects individuals with physical or mental impairments that limit one or more major life activities including “speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” It is divided into five areas, known as titles, of public life: employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, telecommunications and a catch-all grouping of “miscellaneous provisions.”

Colleges and universities are sorted into Title II and Title III depending on their financing structure and public or private status. Public, state-funded institutions like the University of Minnesota are Title II entities, while private institutions that receive federal funding, like Macalester, fall under Title III.

In the day-to-day obligations of a college or university to ensure accommodations for disabled students, accessible programing and equitable admissions processes, the distinction between Title II and Title III institutions are primarily bureaucratic. When it comes making involuntary leave policies, however, that begins to change.

According to Paul G. Lannon in a 2014 National Association of College and University Attorneys publication, “in March 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice (‘DOJ’) fundamentally changed the legal framework in which colleges and universities could address students at risk for self-harm without running afoul of federal disability discrimination laws.”

Prior to 2011, Title III – though not Title II – included a “direct threat” exemption. This meant that private institutions were not required to “permit an individual to participate in or benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations” if that person presented a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

Title II included no direction on direct threat situations and, as such, many colleges and universities within the Title II category looked to the standards set by its regulatory body – the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which operates under the Department of Education.

Lannon wrote that “schools relied on a long-standing interpretation of the phrase by the U.S. Department of Education[’s] Office of Civil Rights that direct threat includes both a threat to ‘others’ and a threat to ‘self.’”

As a Title III college under ADA, Macalester has always been bound by a set of obligations with a caveat for direct threats to others, not self. But the policy on bodily harm and involuntary leave and the administration’s response reflects the more recent chaos around American standards of care for students struggling with suicidal practices and mental illness.

Macalester’s student handbook policy on bodily harm states that “inflicting bodily harm upon any person…and/or inflicting or attempting to inflict harm to oneself is prohibited. Such instances may include, but are not limited to, behaviors associated with eating disorders, suicide gestures or attempts, medical transports and mental health emergencies.”

The policy goes on to say that any continued “student behavior may result in further disciplinary action through the college’s conduct/disciplinary procedures and/or an involuntary leave.”

“The process has been more in terms of providing support and resources,” Lee said. “There have been instances where it has been in the student’s interests to take time away from the college to heal. I don’t consider that disciplinary. I still consider that more in terms of providing support.”

Director of Counseling Ted Rueff, like Lee, feels that the statement does not align with the college’s practices.

“The only way that something like that could conceivably come into play, and I haven’t seen it, is if the behaviors became such a disruption to others’ ability to learn and to be in community,” Rueff said. “But I honestly cannot think of a case where that has happened. The only time where someone would be removed from the campus would be if they were considered a threat to others. To others, not themselves.”

Lee did acknowledge the importance of the policy, but said its language wasn’t set in stone.

“As I read this, I wonder if the wording sounds harsher than the intent [is],” Lee said. “Disciplinary action doesn’t make sense, because the other thing we would want is if a friend is concerned about what their friend is doing, I wouldn’t want them to feel like they are getting them in trouble, but instead, it’s that I’m getting them help.”

Mental illness advocate and director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota Sue Abderholden ’76 said that whether the policy is executed or not, self-harm and a student’s removal from campus should not be connected.

“[Leave] should not be linked to self-harm,” Abderholden said. “If someone self-harms, that should not be a reason for disciplinary action. That’s actually health care condition as far as [NAMI’s] concerned.”

When informed that the policy was still in the handbook, Abderholden said simply, “They should take it out.”