BOSTON — A landmark court ruling affirming the rights of learning-disabled students to receive special accommodations, such as more time to take exams, sends a strong warning signal to America's colleges and universities.
In fining Boston University $30,000, a federal judge ruled over the weekend that the school violated the law when it toughened its rules governing students diagnosed with learning difficulties.
The decision comes as more schools are struggling over how to serve such students without compromising academic standards. This ruling, the first to define specifically how far schools must go in their efforts, may spur even more student lawsuits.
"All those people hoping that the BU decision was going to be purely in the favor of the institution, so that they could start rolling back some of things they have been providing to students, are now going to rethink their position," says Salome Heyward of Heyward Lawton & Associates in Cambridge, Mass., which advises universities and businesses on complying with disability law.
Under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), colleges must provide "reasonable accommodations" for students with disabilities - including those with learning difficulties.
In the BU case, 10 learning-disabled students sued the school in July 1996, after the private university revised its rules on accommodating them. The new rules required students with learning disabilities to be retested every three years by a certified psychologist or physician, not a learning specialist, to qualify for special accommodations granted to such students. They also ended BU's earlier policy of allowing the students to substitute other courses for foreign-language and math requirements.
Number of learning-disabled students on the rise
Former provost and current BU president Jon Westling, who ordered the changes during the 1995-96 school year, has said the new policies were designed to curb abuses in the diagnoses of learning-disabled students.
In recent years, the number of such students entering college has been rising. In 1991, 2 percent of college freshmen identified themselves as learning-disabled; the number jumped to 3 percent by 1994, says the American Council on Education in Washington.
After the BU students filed suit, the university modified its rules again. It now allows students to waive the three-year retesting requirement - a policy the court found to be lawful.
But other key provisions of BU's policies violated federal disabilities law, US district Judge Patti Saris decided. She awarded six students punitive damages and ordered BU to make other two other changes.
* The university must stop requiring retesting for students who were by evaluated by trained professionals with master's degrees and sufficient experience.
* The school must reevaluate its no-exemption policy for the foreign-language requirement. (The school, she found, could refuse to let students substitute other courses for math.)
Judge finds bias was a motivator
While the ruling was not a complete repudiation of BU's reforms, Judge Saris said some of BU's policy changes were driven by bias against learning-disabled students. She cited how Mr. Westling had created a fictional character known as Somnolent Samantha, a learning-disabled freshman who needed extra help because she fell asleep in class.
The judge wrote that Westling and his staff were motivated by "uninformed stereotypes ... that many students with learning disabilities ... are lazy fakers, and that many evaluators are 'snake oil salesmen' who overdiagnose the disability."
The ruling will likely spur universities nationwide to reevaluate their policies. "If we make [learning-disabled students] jump through red tape, we'd better be ready to justify why those hurdles are there," says Carol DeSouza, ADA compliance officer at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.