Both sides claim victory in LD accommodations suit
A class action lawsuit filed by students with learning disabilities against Boston University has been decided in what some observers consider a split decision.
BU, long considered a leader in learning disability support services (see DisPatches, Spring 1997), had changed its policy to require new diagnostic evaluations no more than three years old, to refuse to accept evaluations by anyone other than a physician, licensed psychologist or clinical psychologist, and to review all accommodations being offered, particularly waivers and substitutions for certain class requirements (such as foreign languages and math) for graduation.
Federal judge Patti Saris heard the case of Guckenberger et al. v. Trustees of Boston University et al., and in August issued a 112-page decision which ordered the university to pay damages totaling $30,000 to six of the 10 student plaintiffs.
BU President Jon Westling, in an article he penned for The Wall Street Journal on September 3, laid the blame for that part of the decision on former staff members who "ignored the new policy and worked what mischief they could before resigning."
Although the decision specifically rebukes Westling for his apparent belief "that was fueled mostly by popular press and anecdotal accounts that students with learning disabilities were often fakers who undercut academic rigor," Westling celebrated parts of the decision which he claims represent a crushing defeat for what he calls "disability extremists."
Westling particularly applauded Judge Saris's declaration that a school is not required to provide course substitutions that it "rationally concludes would alter an essential part of its academic program." Saris declared that no scientific research supported the plaintiffs' claim that a learning disability in math could not be overcome with the assistance of reasonable accommodations, and concluded that course substitutions for math requirements are unnecessary. However, the court declared that the foreign language requirement may be waived unless a faculty committee is able to demonstrate that such an accommodation would fundamentally alter the university's academic standards.
The court also split on the issues of evaluator qualifications and currency of documentation, with more stringent requirements for students claiming Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder than for students with learning disabilities. Expert witnesses testified that learning disabilities do not substantially change after the age of 18, and the court threw out BU's policy of a three-year currency on testing, as well the the requirement that the assesment be made by a physician, licensed psychologist or clinical psychologist. However, BU was allowed to retain these policies for students with ADD/ADHD, whose symptoms may change in different environments or with medication.
"I think the decision on this case will really help chill the skepticism of people with learning disabilities being true or legitimate disabilities," said Loring Brinckerhoff in Disability Compliance For Higher Education (Sept. 1997). Brinckerhoff, the former director of Boston University's learning disabilities program, resigned shortly after Westling's new policies went into effect. "The strength of (Judge Saris's) words have called to everybody's attention that learning disabilities are protected under the law."