UPDATE: On July 16, Disability Rights Advocates filed an amended complaint to include three additional students who have joined the original class-action lawsuit. "Additional witness testimony indicates that this harm is system-wide," the legal nonprofit said.
In a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday, a group of Stanford University students allege that the university has repeatedly violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws in its response to students with mental health disabilities, including those who have been hospitalized for suicide attempts.
National legal nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates filed the lawsuit on Thursday on behalf of three students and a campus group that advocates for better mental health support. Though those are the named plaintiffs, the lawsuit states they represent all Stanford students with a mental health disability who may have been impacted by alleged "punitive, illegal and discriminatory" leave of absence policies and practices.
They are not seeking monetary damages but are instead pressing for policy changes at Stanford.
"We would like for this to be a teaching opportunity, especially for students in terms of what their rights are — that students with mental health disabilities are entitled to equal access to their school services and an individualized assessment that includes consideration of reasonable accommodations," Disability Rights Advocates attorney Monica Porter told the Weekly.
In a statement, Stanford spokesman E.J. Miranda said the university is reviewing the complaint. He did not make representatives from the Office of Student Affairs, Vaden Health Center or Counseling and Psychological Services available for interviews.
"The university cares deeply about the health and well-being of our students and has focused on making robust programs, facilities and services available to them," Miranda said.
The lawsuit alleges Stanford has violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal funds) and the Fair Housing Act in addition to state civil rights and housing laws.
The three student-plaintiffs and one recent graduate, identified only by pseudonyms, allege their experiences taken together illustrate an "ongoing, systemic pattern of Stanford discriminating against students with mental health disabilities."
The students say they were pressured to take leaves of absence, unfairly asked to move out of their campus housing and required to meet "onerous" conditions to return to school, including writing personal statements "in which the student accepts blame for their disability-related behaviors," according to the lawsuit.
In each case, Stanford did not conduct a legally required assessment to determine what accommodations could be offered to the students, the lawsuit states.
Under the Dean of Student's Leave of Absence policy, Stanford can require students to take an involuntary leave of absence or "encourage" students to do so voluntarily. The policy applies when a student is at risk of self-harm or harming others; "significantly disrupts" or is unable to participate in educational activities; is "unable or unwilling to carry out substantial self-care obligations"; or "requires a level of care from the university community that exceeds the resources and staffing that the university can reasonably be expected to provide for a student's well-being."
The policy has strict guidelines for how mandatory leaves are put in place — including the creation of a three-member review committee that makes a recommendation to the dean of students on the decision — and how and when students can return to school.
One of the students, identified as Jacob Z., was hospitalized in February after experiencing suicidal ideation. A residence dean visited him in the hospital and told him he had "caused his dormmates psychological harm" and "had been a disruption to the community." The residence dean allegedly threatened Jacob with legal action and a ban from his dorm, the lawsuit states.
Several days later, another residence dean informed Jacob that the university was placing him on a leave of absence. After he was discharged to a local residential mental health treatment program, he received a letter from the second dean that Stanford had revoked his on-campus housing and he was "prohibited from setting foot in all Stanford residential areas." The letter cited as reasons his "inability to care for (his) personal safety" and an "unreasonable level of care required from friends and staff," the lawsuit states. Stanford also initially charged him a $450 administrative fee to process the termination of his housing contract.
Under the policy, students cannot live on campus while on an involuntary leave of absence.
Jacob appealed the involuntary leave of absence and asked to return to school with a reduced course load, a request supported by his psychiatrist. His appeal was denied.
In order to return to Stanford, Jacob must provide documentation of his mental health treatment, sign a release to allow the university to speak directly with his health care providers and submit a statement describing his "understanding of why (his) behaviors are of concern" and meet periodically with a residence dean.
Another plaintiff, identified as Tina Y., was placed an an involuntary leave of absence after experiencing a mental health crisis while studying abroad. After reaching out to her resident assistant for support, she was taken to a psychiatric clinic, where the director of her Stanford overseas program told that she had to spend the night or "else be removed" from the program, the lawsuit states.
The dean of students and a residence dean said she was "disruptive to her classmates and academic program and that her needs exceeded the resources the university could provide," the lawsuit alleges.
She successfully appealed the mandatory leave, though it was conditioned on attending three therapy sessions per week during the rest of her time abroad, transportation to which she had to arrange and pay for herself.
Another plaintiff, Erik X., was hospitalized after attempting suicide in early 2013. He alleges Stanford staff "coerced" him into taking a voluntary leave of absence and warned him, while in the hospital, that violations of the leave could result in probation or expulsion.
His campus housing was also revoked, citing language from the leave of absence policy. He, too, was charged a $450 housing fee to cancel the contract, according to the lawsuit.
He returned to Stanford in the fall 2014 quarter after submitting a statement that asked him to demonstrate "insight into the impact of (his) behavior on others," among other requirements.
The lawsuit also cites the experience of a recent Stanford graduate who was hospitalized following a suicide attempt in 2013. Afterwards, the university revoked her campus housing, gave her two days to move out and placed her on an involuntary leave of absence, according to the lawsuit. Stipulations for her return included meetings with campus counselors and administrators, a release that would allow the university to communicate with her doctors and the same personal statement required of the other plaintiffs.
She returned in fall 2013 and was placed on a second involuntary leave of absence after she engaged in self-harm, which she attributed to a sexual assault. The university deemed the self-harm behavior a "distraction to the community," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges that Stanford's leave of absence policy has also harmed the efforts of the Mental Health and Wellness Coalition, a group of close to 20 student organizations working to improve mental health awareness and support on campus. The group pushes for administrative changes, advocates for students and has provided training presentations to Residential Education staff, including on how to respond to students who have been hospitalized for a psychiatric crisis.
"The coalition's interests are adversely affected because it has expended and continues to expend resources to advocate for its members who are harmed by Stanford's discriminatory policies and practices," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit notes the prevalence of student mental health concerns at Stanford. A 2014 survey by student newspaper the Stanford Daily found that of more than 500 respondents, 31 percent had experienced depression while at Stanford and 51 percent rated their stress levels at seven or eight out of 10.
A 2016 campus climate survey found that 45 percent of undergraduate men and women believe the university's support system for students going through personal crises is ineffective or very ineffective.
Stanford itself has noted a rise in student mental health concerns. Undergraduate residence deans' caseloads are up 57 percent compared to five years ago, with many cases "urgent in nature," Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole said in a May Stanford News story.
"They are seeing more difficult cases and more cases of a higher acuity," she said.
Porter, the Disability Rights Advocates attorney, said the nonprofit heard from concerned Stanford students in response to a post on the organization's website that invites college students who have experienced mental health-related discrimination to share their experiences.
She said students are often unaware that mental health concerns are protected under the same anti-discrimination laws that cover physical or learning disabilities.
While Disability Rights Advocates' past efforts to resolve the matter with Stanford have been unsuccessful, Porter said the nonprofit and its clients "remain very open to working with Stanford to the extent that they are willing."
She declined to state what the past efforts have entailed.
"The only goal here is to create positive and systemic change for current and future Stanford students," Porter said.
In a May 24 response posted on a university blog, Brubaker-Cole said that during talks with Disability Rights Advocates, Stanford adopted an interim policy on housing holds "that communicates our process clearly and transparently."
She did not deny the students' claims and said the university "appreciate(s) that these students have raised their concerns, and we will always engage with students who feel that we need to improve our policies and processes."
In March, she asked a campus mental health advisory board to develop a "comprehensive, public health approach to improving student mental wellbeing" that will start rolling out this fall.
"Student voices are essential to this ongoing process," Brubaker-Cole wrote. "We will also continue to evaluate our policies, including our Dean's Leave of Absence Policy, to ensure not only ongoing compliance but compassionate and appropriate care for individual students' health and recovery."
More information about university counseling and psychological services can be found at vaden.stanford.edu.
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can also call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.