Student’s drop petition denied despite mental health concerns

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After several weeks of counseling, a campus sophomore felt that her recently developed anxiety was becoming more manageable. But when her request to drop Physics 8A past the Sept. 2 early-drop deadline was denied Tuesday, the student, who has asked to remain anonymous, said her spells of panic returned.

With 18 course units, two jobs, graduate school aspirations and a desire to finish her degree in three years to save money, she wasn’t sure what to do when she began to have mental health concerns early in the semester. After seeking help at the campus’s Tang Center, the student — who has not been diagnosed or treated for a mental illness decided with her counselor’s encouragement to forego her minor and drop her Physics 8A course.

“I would go to class and if I didn’t understand something, I wouldn’t be able to breathe going home. My chest would get tight, I would have spells of panic and terror,” the student said. “I realized this isn’t normal for anyone.”

But the College of Letters and Science’s early-drop deadline had already passed and the student would need to petition to drop the course, a requirement for the Energy and Resources Group minor.

The College of Letters and Science processes more than 1,000 late-drop requests per semester and approves about half of them, according to Bob Jacobsen, the dean of undergraduate studies for the College of Letters and Science.

“It ranges from tremendous (issues) down to small issues that hundreds or thousands of students have dealt with already,” Jacobsen said. “Students don’t necessarily agree with us on what kind of issue it is.”

The student petitioned to the College of Letters and Science for an exceptional change to her class schedule in which she detailed her recent anxiety, attaching a verification form from a Tang Center counselor.

University Health Services Social Services Manager Paula Flamm said in an emailed statement that the Tang Center verifications — which can be attached to late drop requests — are intended to substantiate students’ claims of physical or mental illness but do not constitute a recommendation from the Tang Center that the request be approved. The decision regarding whether or not to approve students’ petitions lies with the college, not the Tang Center.

On Tuesday, 10 days after the student submitted the petition, she received an email from the college’s Academic Progress Committee stating that her petition had been denied. The email did not explain a reason for the rejection and stated that the decision could not be appealed.

Jacobsen noted that college advisers frequently work with students who have similar issues and that they have a sense of what most are able to overcome. The college sometimes advises students to work around dropping a class by seeking an incomplete grade from their professor.

Olivia Flechsig, the academic director of the Student Advocate’s Office, often works with the College of Letters and Science to help students reduce their course loads or withdraw from the university under extenuating circumstances. She said the college’s late-drop petition process, as well as its no-appeals policy, occasionally hurts students.

“Sometimes the policies have an unintended impact on students who have extenuating circumstances, including various medical issues,” Flechsig said. “I don’t think anyone’s trying to punish students, it’s just the rules sometimes do that inadvertently.”

The student plans to change her grading option to pass/no pass for the course and is working with the Student Advocate’s Office to reverse the college’s decision. Her Physics 8A course has a midterm Thursday.

“This was supposed to make me feel better, instead it’s hurt me a lot more than I had ever intended,” the student said. “I feel like my mental health was deemed invalid by a committee of strangers.”

Contact Simon Greenhill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @simondgreenhill.