Berkeley disability rights group alleges mental health discrimination by Stanford University

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A Berkeley-based disability rights advocacy group filed a lawsuit against Stanford University on Friday, alleging discrimination against students with mental health issues.

Disability Rights Advocates, or DRA, filed the lawsuit on behalf of three Stanford students and the Stanford Mental Health and Wellness Coalition — composed of more than 20 student organizations on Stanford’s campus — according to a press release. The lawsuit alleges that Stanford discriminates against students with mental health issues by evicting them from campus housing and pressuring them into taking leaves of absence, thereby violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Despite being a highly selective university regularly ranked in the top five nationally and globally and charging tuition in the range of $50,000 per year, Stanford maintains antiquated policies, practices, and procedures related to mental health that violate anti-discrimination laws,” the lawsuit alleges.

One student, referred to as Jacob Z. in the lawsuit, struggled with suicidal tendencies in early 2018, eventually checking into a hospital for treatment. The lawsuit alleges that while Jacob was at the hospital, a residence dean visited him and stated that Jacob had “caused his dormmates psychological harm” and “been a disruption to the community.” Jacob was allegedly threatened with legal action and a ban from his dormitory. 

“Throughout this process, Stanford has treated Jacob more as a legal liability than as a student,” states the lawsuit. “Stanford has aggravated Jacob’s stress with vague, incomplete information and complicated processes which he must navigate without assistance or explanation.”

Another student, referred to as Tina Y. in the lawsuit, was sexually assaulted during her first quarter at Stanford and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. The next spring, Tina was allegedly asked by a residence dean to avoid interacting with admitted students and their families during Admit Day, or risk being forced to take a leave of absence “if she was perceived to be too much of a liability.”

After receiving a medication adjustment for her anxiety symptoms while studying abroad, Tina was allegedly required to stay at an on-site clinic against her will. Tina was placed on an indefinite leave of absence from the university five days into Stanford’s mandated 30-day treatment, according to the lawsuit.

“During Tina’s three-hour video conference to appeal the leave of absence, the administrators asked Tina how she would remedy the damage she had done to the community, despite the fact that she had not harmed anyone,” the lawsuit states.

Monica Porter, an attorney and the Equal Justice Works Fellow at the DRA, said the DRA was looking into campus mental health statewide and nationally. She added that the group’s advocacy is informed by the needs of the community, and that the DRA launched an investigation after learning about Stanford’s mental health policies.

“In a mental health crisis, Stanford should be working with students and their doctors, not making students apologize for being ill,” Porter said in the press release.

Rather than seek monetary damages in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs want to change Stanford’s leave of absence policy and improve access to Stanford’s housing services.

According to Stanford University spokesperson E. J. Miranda, Stanford is in the process of reviewing the complaint.

“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 in an email.

Revati Thatte is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @revati_thatte.