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Howard settles complaint with former student alleging mental health discrimination

Howard University settled a mental health discrimination complaint with former student Durmerrick Ross, aiming for policy changes.

Former Howard student settles mental health discrimination complaint with the university, seeks policy changes. (Illustration by Ruona Akpareva/The Hilltop) 

At the end of his spring semester, Durmerrick Ross was led out of Drew Hall in handcuffs. Minutes before, his friends called the university’s crisis line and campus police after Ross said he wanted to overdose on blood pressure medication. 

Leading up to that night in 2017, Ross struggled with anxiety after coming out as gay and being sexually assaulted on campus, he said. After being escorted out of the dorm hall, he was admitted into a psychiatric unit. 

Ross spent three days in the facility, but would spend the next six years battling the university over mental health accommodations.

Ross said the university failed to accommodate his mental health disability by denying his request to withdraw and did not provide an effective alternate accommodation. However, the university said Ross “did not request any accommodation in the note, nor did he note any limitation regarding his further participation in the academic program of the University.”

This fall, the university settled a complaint filed by Ross in which he alleged mental health discrimination. The settlement includes a formal letter of apology, financial compensation of an undisclosed amount, changes to his academic record and policy change discussions with the university.

“That started a crazy back and forth,” he said, referring to the university. “I just think they messed up on so many fronts.”

In 2018, Ross, now a Texas Southern University alumnus, filed a complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR) after being denied a request for withdrawal due to mental health concerns. 

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“Truthfully, no settlement could really repair the harm that has been done,” Ross said.

According to the settlement obtained by The Hilltop, the university admits no “legal wrongdoing and/or liability of any kind.”

The Hilltop reached out to the university for additional comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Ross attended the university as a freshman during the 2016-2017 academic year until he “was admitted into the hospital for a serious medical condition” in April 2017, according to a letter of determination from the OHR. The former student sent a request for a withdrawal to the Office of the Registrar, but the office denied the request in June 2017, leaving Ross with a 1.39 GPA and difficulty applying to other universities.

“Because of the GPA thing, that was a result of them not doing the withdrawal. And so I was effectively just out of school for a whole semester,” he said.

Ross said the withdrawal request was denied due to incompleteness. However, Ross said he completed everything on his part.

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According to the university, total withdrawals “must be submitted by the end of the 12th week of classes for the semester (fall/spring) in which students wish to withdraw.”

Karen Bower, a Washington, D.C. lawyer focusing on disability discrimination cases in higher education, said cases like Ross’s are common among universities nationwide. Bower also provided legal counsel to Ross.

“It’s absolutely a nationwide issue,” she said. “It does come up fairly often, perhaps less so now than a few years ago, because there has been more public, visible litigation on the issue, but it is a fairly common scenario.”

Moving forward, Ross wants Howard to implement mental health policies similar to those that Yale University implemented. 

Following a lawsuit in November 2022, Yale University’s undergraduate school implemented a policy allowing for students with medical needs to study part-time– rather than taking the time off entirely. 

“Yale is already so far ahead,” Ross said, “Howard does not have a medical leave of absence policy, we are already behind [on that.]”

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Dr. Hideko Sera, the executive director of equity, inclusion and belonging at Morehouse College, said students should take time off from school due to health concerns if needed. 

“If [a student] struggles with their health, self-advocating for their well-being or taking some time off from education to attend to their wellness may be a form of ‘academic success,’” she said. 

Sera believes that mental health accommodations to help student success are critical.  

“The type of mental health accommodations that would benefit students is exactly the same for anyone seeking mental health – culturally competent, timely, and specific to the challenges that the person [has],” Sera said.

Sera also believes mental health can impact student matriculation. 

“Mental health and well-being inevitably impact the level of concentration, comprehension, and preparation of [a student’s] learning processes,” she said. “If we are not healthy, there are many possible consequences that may impact us, and ‘academic success’ could be one of those.”

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Bower shared the same sentiments about university accommodations.

“When a student requests a leave of absence or withdrawal, the policy that the university has should be easily accessible and should be transparent, they should act promptly,” she said. “Communicate with the student so that the accommodation is granted and if there’s any problem with it, the student is aware of it and can timely fix it.”

For the future, she also said universities could provide better accommodations to suit students so they aren’t discouraged from returning to campus.

“I think it is crucial really to provide leaves of absence [and] to have robust accommodations, including leaves of absence and [getting] rid of any barriers to students taking them…. It might be things like tuition reimbursement so that students feel they can take a leave of absence and come back,” Bower said.

After the lawsuit settlement, Ross anticipates engaging in policy discussions with the university as part of the settlement terms. He aims to persist in advocating for fellow students to shed light on their administrative challenges for the university to address.

“I’ll be having conversations and discussions with the university about policies, and I would love to be able to go and say, I’ve collected the stories of hundreds of students over the last 10 years who dealt with something similar,” he said.

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Through these discussions, Ross said he hopes to hold the university accountable to transform its practices.

“This is not something that you can ignore and just give the standard response to; this is something that truly needs to transform how you completely operate, and the policies or practices,” he said.

Ross is specifically focusing on advocating for changes to the university’s medical leave of absence policy. 

He said, “I think there really needs to be a real look at the medical leave of absence policy and then the reentry process for students who are administratively withdrawn. I think those are two big things that I look forward to talking to the university about.”

Ross reiterated his dedication to advocating for policy changes with the university, expressing a preference for resolving issues without resorting to a class-action lawsuit.

“I would hope it doesn’t have to get to a class action; I would hope that Howard would use this settlement to be the catalyst for change, but if it takes going all the way up to a class action, then that is important, too,” he said.

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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