A disabled graduate student at the University of Virginia says he has had no choice but to take medical leave after the school retaliated against him for filing a discrimination complaint with the federal government.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights ruled in his favor, and the university signed a resolution agreement on Nov. 22 of last year that required the school not only make the student whole but update its procedures and faculty training.
Weston Allen, who is in the UVa counselor education graduate program, told The Daily Progress that UVa has not held up any part of its side of the deal and, worse, is making it difficult to stay in school.
He said he’s depressed, exhausted, constantly ill, lonely, discouraged and running out of money. “UVa did this to me,” Allen said.
“I’m worn out,” he said. “I’m depressed about it, because I just cannot believe that a school of this caliber has made things so bad from the get-go. I just feel sick. I feel a lot of emotions. I just cannot believe they could do this, especially the counselor education program. On top of that, in housing and disability services, no one had my back.”
Today, nearly five months after the Office for Civil Rights ruled in Allen’s favor and more than 10 months after he filed his initial discrimination complaint, the university has not met any of the requirements that resulted from the investigation and its findings, Allen said.
His attorney, Robert L. Shibley, said Allen made his formal complaint, the Office for Civil Rights ruled in his favor but the university has been difficult every step of the way.
“They made a huge issue out of every single nit they could pick,” Shibley told The Daily Progress. “And they never even paid him the amount they agreed to.”
Shibley said that the university’s response to correspondence is to go “silent for weeks.”
“This is all one string of things dating back to when Weston prevailed in his complaint about the housing problem,” Shibley said.
UVa agreed to pay Allen and provide him with a parking pass by Nov. 22, but asked the Department of Education for more time, saying that the Nov. 13 shooting on Grounds caused universitywide delays, Shibley said. The department extended the university’s deadline to Dec. 16, but Allen still has not received any reimbursement from UVa.
As of March 15, Allen said UVa has also not responded to messages that Shibley sent on Allen’s behalf on Jan. 30.
Allen is pursuing his graduate degree with dreams of becoming a guidance counselor for primary and secondary school students with terminal illnesses and other disabilities.
Having lived with delayed gastric emptying for more than a decade, Allen is familiar with what it’s like pursuing an education with a disability. His morning routine often consists of waking up sick and immediately rushing to a bathroom.
This, and a benign brain tumor that causes neurological delays, were his reasons for reaching out to Student Disability Access Services at UVa to speak with a coordinator about the housing accommodation application process on April 5 of last year.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that any college or university that receives funding from the Department of Education and provides housing to its students without disabilities must also provide comparable, convenient and accessible housing to students with disabilities at the same set cost. The federal law also says that accessible housing should be available in “sufficient quantity and variety” to give disabled students living options to choose from.
Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities by public entities, including public education systems and institutions, regardless of whether they receive federal financial assistance.
A UVa coordinator told Allen that housing accommodation requests had to go through Housing and Residence Life, then scheduled a phone call for Allen to speak with the director of Student Disability Access Services on April 12, the Office for Civil Rights wrote in its conclusion regarding Allen’s case on Oct. 31.
The deadline for priority housing applications to secure undergraduate and graduate housing for the 2022-23 academic year was April 8 of this year.
UVa policy says that students who apply for housing accommodations must submit a routine application to Housing and Residence Life as well as a “request for housing modification” and a verification of disability form to Student Disability Access Services. The policy includes that “priority will go to students who submit the housing accommodation forms by the published deadlines” during the housing selection process and the university will do “whatever it can to meet the accommodation needs, but it will be subject to room availability” for students who submit their accommodation requests made after the deadline.
Allen submitted his housing application, request for housing modification form and verification of disability form to the assistant director of Housing and Residence Life on April 26 and received a response saying he was on a wait list because one-bedroom units had been unavailable since April 13.
On May 1, the director of Housing and Residence Life at the university told Allen that all graduate and undergraduate housing had already been assigned so he would not receive student housing for the 2022-23 academic year. Allen and the attorney he hired to fight his case filed a complaint against the university with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on May 3, claiming the university refused to engage with him before denying his housing request.
The department launched an investigation into his claims, and in the meantime, Allen moved into off-campus housing in August to begin the fall semester.
The new school year was going smoothly, Allen said, until the director of the counselor education program, Dr. Derick J. Williams, and Allen’s academic adviser, Dr. Blair E. Cholewa, “forced” him to sign a Student Success Plan on Oct. 15, before he had taken his midterms. The Student Success Plan was a document with statements promising that Allen would submit work on time and not allow his “personal issues” to derail his coursework.
Allen said his program leaders claimed he needed the plan because he was still learning to use the program’s academic software applications, Canvas and IRIS, at the time.
“Student Success Plans are never in the student’s best interest,” Allen said. “If they were, they would include you in building them, but that’s never the case.”
On Oct. 31, the Office for Civil Rights found the university in violation of Section 504 and required the university to make Allen whole with the more than $2,200 that he paid in rent until that point; provide Allen with a free parking pass; reinstate any points or deductions that Allen received for class or assignment tardiness through the date the parking pass is provided; and finally update the university’s Section 504 procedures and faculty training by Nov. 22.
UVa Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis signed a resolution agreeing to the terms on Oct. 28.
Relieved, Allen said he was ready to put the matter behind him to focus on his school work. As a full-time student relying on loans for income, Allen was also glad that the university would be paying the equivalent of his rent costs between August and October of last year.
But then, on Dec. 15, Allen said his graduate program pressured him to sign another Student Success Plan.
This time, he requested a Zoom call with the director and associate director to discuss the reason for the plan before signing. The fall semester formally ended on Dec. 16.
In January, before the spring 2023 semester began, Allen emailed his adviser, Cholewa, with questions about the plan to discuss on the upcoming Zoom call but said he was met with hostility. Allen said Cholewa told him to take his time reviewing and signing the plan.
“I got hassled like you wouldn’t believe,” Allen said. “The meeting went on for a least two hours on Zoom, and she got to the point of really yelling at me and saying, ‘Weston, I need you to tell me right now that you were wrong for sending this email last minute.’”
Allen said he was harassed, berated, gaslighted and taunted by the program director and his academic adviser, who were both interviewed during the OCR investigation, in what he believes is retaliation because he filed a complaint against the university and won.
Allen said the only other time that he has experienced discrimination based on his invisible disabilities was as an undergraduate student at UVa’s College at Wise in 2019.
“I have experienced this one time,” Allen said. “It was actually at UVa Wise with my art professor. She didn’t like anything I made. I was always in the bathroom, because in the mornings I am sick and throwing up because I have gastroparesis and it makes me very nauseous. I had to do an Office of Civil Rights complaint about her and it turned out, real fast, that she told everybody in the class that I got an F.”
The office found that professor also in violation of Section 504, Allen said, and required her to change his grade from and F to a P, which took him from failing to passing.
After being discriminated against and then being denied the reimbursement that a federal agency found was his right to have, Allen is convinced that he doesn’t “fit” UVa’s model for its ideal student.
Allen said he remains dedicated to the fight for the university to correct its discriminatory behavior, but the struggle with the university has pushed him to go on medical leave for the spring 2023 semester.
“Due to federal student privacy laws, the University cannot comment on the particular elements of this individual’s complaint,” UVa spokesman Brian Coy said in a statement to The Daily Progress. “I can tell you that we take seriously our responsibility to offer reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities and that we have recently updated our processes governing interactions with students who are seeking a housing accommodation for a reported disability.”
Allen said his grandparents are concerned about the pressure. He said the program has stressed him out more than nearly losing his father to a stroke last summer.
“I was raised by my grandparents, and they are just angry,” Allen said. “They’re angry by this, because it is not what UVa has talked about when they mention helping people and being accessible and the reality is not what they talk about. It’s just the opposite of what they thought it was going to be. They thought it would be supportive, and it’s not.”