U.S. Justice Department Reaches Agreement with Princeton University to Resolve Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance Review

The U.S. Justice Department announced today that it has reached an agreement with Princeton University to resolve a compliance review initiated in 2014 regarding Princeton’s treatment of students with mental health disabilities and the school’s policies and practices related to requests for reasonable modifications, withdrawals and leaves of absences.

The agreement details specific steps Princeton will take to strengthen its policies, practices and training to benefit all current and future Princeton students with disabilities.

Under the agreement, Princeton will:

  • Revise its policies to explicitly describe the types of accommodations students with disabilities may request, including modifications to university policies, rules and regulations; where students may submit each type of accommodation request; and how Princeton will evaluate those requests.
  • Revise the websites for its Office of Disability Services and its Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students to direct students to relevant policies and procedures related to requesting reasonable accommodations.
  • Revise its leave policy and practices, consistent with regulations implementing Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Provide annual training, including references to updated policies, on Title III of the ADA, with a focus on mental health disability discrimination, to all faculty and staff responsible for evaluating and/or deciding requests from students for reasonable accommodations.

“This agreement reflects the critical role that colleges and universities play in fulfilling the ADA’s promise of equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Just Department’s Civil Rights Division. “By working directly with students with disabilities to determine appropriate accommodations, colleges and universities can meet their obligations under the ADA.”

The compliance review was conducted jointly by the Civil Rights Division’s Disability Rights Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of New Jersey.

“The ADA, which is one of this country’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation, prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life,” said U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman of the District of New Jersey.  “Through this agreement, students with disabilities move closer to achieving full equality and integration into places of higher education.”

In a written statement posted on the Princeton University website, the school asserted that the Justice Department did not make any findings of non-compliance and asked Princeton to update its policy language to better explain University procedures and options available to students with disabilities.

“The university seeks to provide students with disabilities equal access to educational opportunities and programs on campus,” reads the statement. The school’s office of disability services, residential college staff and numerous others work with students to ensure they have every reasonable opportunity to earn a Princeton degree, school officials said.

“The university really has a community-wide approach — with support from staff in offices across campus and the residential colleges, as well as from individual faculty — to ensure that undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities get the access they deserve,” said Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity.

Minter said the university continually reviews its policies and practices to best support students with disabilities and to provide reasonable accommodations based on assessments of individual student needs. Students with disabilities can request academic accommodations, housing and dining accommodations, modifications to university processes and various other adjustments. The university also provides support services to address the physical and mental health needs of students while on campus, as well as policies for student leaves of absence, school officials said.

“Princeton has worked for years to make the university more accessible to and supportive of students with disabilities,” Minter said. “The Department of Justice agreement focuses on better explaining what we are doing. This is an opportunity to re-stress and raise the profile of policies we have in place.”

Princeton University established a disability services office nearly a decade ago, and the office is expanding its staff and programs, school officials said. In the spring semester, the office plans to open a new space in Frist Campus Center to foster discussions and programs around diverse types of disabilities, as well as provide resources and study spaces for students with disabilities.

“The Office of Disabilities Services does a remarkable job in coordinating support and accommodations for students with disabilities, including physical, mental health or temporary disabilities,” Minter said. “We offer a very customized program that focuses on the needs of individual students.”

Princeton University Senior Associate Dean Claire Fowler said the advising staff members in the residential colleges also are an important resource for students with disabilities.

“We are very fortunate the university has dedicated staff in the residential colleges who work with all students to help them figure out how to make the most of a Princeton education,” Fowler said. “In the case of students with disabilities, residential college deans work in close collaboration with disability services and academic departments to ensure appropriate accommodations may be made so students receive access to the full academic experience and feel supported in the process.”

Calvin Chin, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Princeton University Health Services, said his department continually works to improve how it supports students, including those with mental health disabilities.

A new program during orientations for incoming undergraduate and graduate students focuses on self-care and prioritizing mental health. Online appointment scheduling is available for counseling services, and the forms for students on leave for mental health reasons who want to return to campus have been simplified, school officials said.

“We have been doing a lot of work to make the language of our policies clearer and more transparent for students so they understand, for example, what it means to take a leave of absence from Princeton,” Fowler said. “We want to continue to refine our language so the university’s policies and practices are clear to students.”