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US Department of Education opens investigation into claims UVa retaliated against disabled student

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation into claims that faculty at the University of Virginia retaliated against a disabled graduate student after he filed and won a housing discrimination case against UVa last year.

Weston Allen, a UVa Wise alumnus and a student in UVa’s counselor education program, said that after filing his complaint he’s been “forced” onto a Student Success Plan, “hassled” by his academic adviser and told his “personal issues” are a threat to his coursework.

Allen filed a retaliation claim against the university with the Office for Civil Rights on April 19. He told The Daily Progress that the office agreed to open an investigation into his claims exactly one week later.

“I want to stop being told that some aspect of my disability is causing problems with my work,” Allen told The Daily Progress. “I’ve been degraded. I want that to stop. I want to be treated fairly.”

Allen said he has not heard from anyone at the university, including his academic adviser who is expected to help him reenroll for the 2023-2024 academic year, other than a “dismissive” email from UVa counsel dated March 28 denying his claims of retaliation.

That email arrived the same day that Allen received a check totaling more than $2,000 for reimbursed housing expenses that UVa was ordered to pay him as part of his original complaint filed with the Office for Civil Rights. That check was four months late and only arrived after The Daily Progress first reported on Allen’s case on March 25.

The university has outright denied that its faculty has retaliated against Allen in any way.

UVa is devoted “to creating conditions where every student can succeed inside and outside the classroom,” spokesman Brian Coy told The Daily Progress in a statement, and “reject[s] any insinuation that University faculty would somehow retaliate against a student in response to a complaint about housing accommodations, which are handled in a totally separate division of the University.”

Pressed on the Student Success Plan that Allen claims unfairly attacked his academic performance and that he was “forced” to sign, Coy directed The Daily Progress to the March 28 email the university’s counsel sent to Allen and his attorney.

“Mr. Allen’s academic challenges were objectively verifiable and well-documented,” associate university counsel Barry Meek wrote in the email. “Faculty and staff in the School of Education and Human Development worked with Mr. Allen in an effort to remediate those challenges and put him on a path to academic success.”

Allen and his attorney Robert Shibley have said there was nothing objective about the Student Success Plan, a document with statements promising that Allen would submit work on time and not allow his “personal issues” to derail his coursework.

That plan was only introduced after the federal government began investigating Allen’s claims and highlighted technical issues that several other students were also struggling to overcome, according to Allen.

Moreover, Allen has said the director of the counselor education program, Dr. Derick J. Williams, and Allen’s academic adviser, Dr. Blair E. Cholewa, not only “forced” him to sign the plan but “berated and taunted” him during the process.

Allen’s attorney told The Daily Progress there was nothing surprising about UVa’s response to the new federal investigation. According to Shibley, UVa has “largely ignored” his client and his complaints, refusing to take them seriously.

"While there is ample evidence of what happened to Weston, the counseling program truly seemed to be going to inordinate lengths to try to minimize the written information Weston received, which is always a bad sign," Shibley told The Daily Progress. "And while UVa felt free to ignore Weston’s pleas for some kind of concrete information about his supposed deficiencies, and faulted him for his attempts to correct erroneous information, they won’t have that option when dealing with federal investigators."

Allen has lived with delayed gastric emptying for more than a decade and has a benign brain tumor that causes a learning disability. In May of last year, he filed a discrimination complaint against the university with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, claiming UVa Housing & Residence Life unlawfully denied him the housing accommodations required by his disability for the 2022-2023 academic year. The office ruled in his favor, finding the university in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Section 504 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 prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities by public entities, including public education systems and institutions, regardless of whether they receive federal financial assistance.

On Oct. 31, the Office for Civil Rights ordered the university to make Allen whole with the more than $2,000 that he paid in rent while housing was denied to him; 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 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.

The university requested a deadline extension, citing the Nov. 13 shooting on Grounds that killed three student-athletes. The federal government extended the university’s deadline to Dec. 16.

It failed to meet that deadline.

And while the check did finally arrive — four months late — that tardiness is part of Allen’s retaliation complaint, Shibley said.

"As though his treatment by the program wasn’t enough, it’s impossible to believe that an institution like UVa, which pays bills all the time, could ‘accidentally’ fail to repay Weston for its housing discrimination for months past the date it promised to the federal Department of Education. It shouldn’t take appearing in The Daily Progress to get UVa to remedy its acts of discrimination,” Shibley said.

Allen told The Daily Progress he is "hopeful" that the new and ongoing investigation will validate his claims, but he is nervous that his story will discourage the university and the counseling program from admitting students with disabilities in the future.

On Wednesday, Allen received an email from UVa Housing & Residence Life regarding his application for housing for the 2023-2024 academic year.

"Unfortunately, we cannot predict the likelihood that you will receive housing," it reads.


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