Seek ways to drop a class for a mental illness student
June 25, 2017 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Is there any way to drop an “F” if my kid with mental illness missed the deadline for Withdraw? The college she is attending is University of Chicago. She took 4 courses last quarter, got 3 As. The 4th course needed to be withdraw. She was diagnosed as depression and had been on medication. She was really sick in April (the beginning of the spring quarter). She missed classes as well as exams. She was managed to catch up for the other 3 classes. For the 4th course (the hardest for her), she never showed up in the class again after her sickness. She didn’t drop the course until we found she got an “F”. This could be really related to her social anxiety and panic disorder. She automatically put a “Wall” if she feels not comfortable of answering these emails. She never replied to emails, text messages and calls from her family for several weeks when she was “sick”. The class instructor agrees to change “F” (fail) to “W”(withdraw) if the associate dean agrees. However, the associate dean believes that my kid couldn’t possibly forget the deadline because my kid withdrew courses in previous years. Also the dean think she is too “rude” to not answering emails to the professors and the staff.

Here is what the dean replied:

This situation is a familiar one:
Your adviser is contacted multiple times during the quarter about you missing class and/or missing work. She emails you repeatedly (as does the faculty) and you do not respond. I checked and your advisor had over 50 contacts with your faculty, your parents and you since December, always about the same issue. You were contacted in April by your SS instructor to inquire about whether you were planning to be in class or not. You did not reply.
You have withdrawn from previous classes during your time here in the College, so I do not believe that forgetting to do this in the appropriate time frame is an excuse, particularly when you have been emailed repeatedly about it.
Your other grades this quarter were excellent. But, something is going to have to change in the way you manage your communications with your faculty and our office.

We sent the associate dean several emails with the doctor’s diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder of my kid and explained that not responding to their emails was not personal and really related to my kid's mental illness. The associate dean didn’t reply.
My question is:
Is there any way to drop an “F” if my kid with mental health illness missed the deadline for Withdraw?
posted by mysunshine to Education (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As a college professor I can tell you this is simply not something AskMetafilter can answer. The student needs to pursue it with the dean's office and student counseling services. If the student has a diagnosed mental illness which a doctor is willing to attest to it is possible that your student might get some help from an office usually called "Disability Services" at modern universities. And perhaps Chicago also has a student affairs Ombudsman?

The details don't matter here. This is not a texhnical question or one that has a generic answer. It seems to be the college's case that if the student managed to deal with all their other classes, they weren't disabled to the point of simply being unable to respond to adviser inquiries etc. I work at a similarly elite university and this happens every once in a while. Deans are generally sympathetic to a medical argument backed by documentation. (Chicago is somewhat notoriously hard-assed about grades and student performance however.)

Worst case is the student failed a class. It isn't the end of the world.
posted by spitbull at 7:22 PM on June 25, 2017 [41 favorites]

If the grade didn't make her lose any scholarships she has, I would just chalk this up as a learning experience and let it go.
posted by cooker girl at 7:35 PM on June 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

To clarify I really think your kid herself has to pursue this, in person, with the dean's office. At the college level a parent really shouldn't be playing this role unless the student is seriously incapacitated.

Here is the website for UC's office of student disability services. Diagnosed major depression is usually an ongoing condition and should be treated holistically as a disability requiring accommodation and support under federal law. This may not fix the existing situation but registering as disabled will improve institutional responsiveness going forward.
posted by spitbull at 7:35 PM on June 25, 2017 [29 favorites]

Get a lawyer. They're an incredibly bad school for disability access and this is a totally unacceptable response to a diagnosed and disclosed disability.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:38 PM on June 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

You 100% should not "let this go" nor should you stop pursuing it as her parent. The associate dean has no place determining what accommodations she should and shouldn't get based on his/her gut feeling about what your daughter is capable of. Totally inappropriate and potentially illegal.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:40 PM on June 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

It seems to me that the answer is contained within your question. The associate dean has the power to change the grade. The associate dean told your daughter the following: Something is going to have to change in the way you manage your communications with your faculty and our office. So, if your daughter wants the grade changed, she is going to need to figure out how to change the way she manages communication with the faculty and the dean's office. My first suggestion would be that she take over responsibility for all communication with the dean, and you respectfully bow out. My second suggestion would be that she suggest to the dean that they meet in person, and go from there.

The question this raises, obviously, is whether her depressive disorder is now sufficiently under control that she can take on this responsibility. In other words, is the problem of being unable to answer emails and communicate with faculty resolved, or if the grade is changed now, will she end up having a similar problem again down the road?

If your daughter isn't in a place right now where she can handle communications with the dean, then she absolutely needs to be in touch with Disability Services, not about the earlier grade, but about making an action plan to deal with this current issue. To be able to function in college, you need the soft skills of answering emails, advocating for yourself, etc. It's totally possible that her depressive disorder means she isn't capable of doing that right now, but you are doing her no favors by taking on that responsibility for her. Disability Services may be able to offer significant help - not changing the grade retroactively, but making sure that she has a plan in place so that it doesn't happen again.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:41 PM on June 25, 2017 [50 favorites]

Get a lawyer

Sorry but that's wrong. The student didn't have a diagnosed and registered disability when the class was failed if that documentation is only being supplied after the fact. And the student apparently did well in other classes in the same quarter (hi UC folks!).

Outrage won't help. I work in the field. I've dealt with dozens and dozens of student disability situations over a 24 year teaching career. Getting a lawyer and raising hell won't help the situation, will get you branded a problematic parent, and certainly won't help your student learn to manage their disability. Chicago is under no obligation to predict a subsequent claim of disability.
posted by spitbull at 7:42 PM on June 25, 2017 [33 favorites]

The student herself being persistent, earnest, and sincere in seeking support and accommodation (ideally in person and not over email) will be much more likely to get retroactive action taken on a failed course. Step one is to contact the disability office with her documentation and let them guide her next steps.

Those people are usually great and very good at advocacy.
posted by spitbull at 7:47 PM on June 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

For context, my son had to withdraw from two classes during his second semester as a freshman, due to a major depressive episode. We actually had to get the University health services involved with wellness checks. He scraped by, just barely keeping his scholarship, but he had to go through a lot of hoops and had to meet a lot of conditions just to take the W's and even to schedule classes for the next semester. He ended up taking a D in one class and decided to take it again instead of asking for another W because it was just easier in the end. And his school is incredibly supportive with disability accommodations.

That's where I'm coming from as the parent of a young adult in a situation with mental illness.
posted by cooker girl at 7:52 PM on June 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

[Folks, I'm aware this topic inspires strong feelings but please just offer answers to the OP and don't argue with other commenters. Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:00 PM on June 25, 2017

Hi, went through this at a different university. I had a PTSD breakdown and it was messy. Anyway, I had to navigate withdrawals, a full tuition scholarship and a failure class plus full time status, and pell grant stuff. It was a nightmare and I really had a hard time. But, I successfully kept my full tuition scholarship, my pell with no refund shenanigans, housing status, managed not to get kicked off campus , and all that jazz.

First, all the documentation should be with you on paper each time you meet and most if not all communication going forward should be in person with follow up emails of understanding.

Disability services is always the first step and the follow up step. It will drive you and your daughter bananas . But it should look like this disability services- Dean - disability services - next step - disability services. They are there to verify and to guide every step of the way and are also extra documentation administratively about what is happening. They know the system better than anyone and can take out the guess work.

Ultimately, In my situation disability services advised and I followed. I ended up taking one F because full time status mattered more than my GPA (my average was above my scholarship level but not having full time stays would have lost me 30,000+ dollars. So F it was, on purpose. I didn't withdrawal ).

Long term, I ended up being accepted for a masters at UCLA and graduated with like a 3.7 GPA and got two degrees. It worked out. I have a masters degree, a pretty awesome job and life is good.

So, battle it out, but it can be okay even if it stays. She may be able just to retake the class for a grade replacement or it show up twice on her transcript.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:34 PM on June 25, 2017 [11 favorites]

From the Learning Disabilities Association of America, a disability advocacy group:

How do I assert my rights in college?

You need to disclose your disability to the college, request specific accommodations, and supply supporting professional documentation. In public school, the school system has a duty to identify students with disabilities. This is not so in college. The student has the responsibility to disclose the disability and to request accommodations. You must be specific about the accommodations that you need because of your disability. It is not enough to say that you have learning disabilities, so the college must help you.

Let's look at an example. Sarah is taking courses at the community college. She has a reading disorder, expressive writing disorder, and ADD. She requested one and one-half time on tests, separate room for tests, a reader to read exam questions to her, and a scribe to take down her answers. She provided good professional documentation to support her request and was granted the requested accommodations.

There are student requests that the college is not obligated to grant. For example, if you did not request an accommodation on a test and failed it, generally you may not require the college to eliminate the failure from your record.

Focus on that last example, as it describes the situation OP relates. Under the ADA, if the situation is as described and no accommodation has been requested in advance, Chicago doesn't owe this student a do-over or a withdrawal.

My advice presumes however that such an outcome can be obtained with honey rather than legal posturing. (Feel free to ask a disability lawyer, of course.)

So step one is to register for disabled status with documentation. It may be a "disaster bureaucracy" (describes the entire modern university to some extent) but it's how the system operates in the real world, and in any case, while I don't know UC 's in particular, I find that characterization of disability offices as unresponsive not true to my extensive experience. (That experience, by the way, is not only as a provider of disability accommodations as specified by my ODS folks, but as an advocate specifically for disabled students -- including years as a DGS -- with mental illness and a mentor to many, many such students. Oh and as someone who struggled with major depression in my own Ivy League education long before the ADA existed. )

There's an ideological battle going on around these issues and people get worked up about them all the time. But the OP asked how to help her daughter. I am positive UC has no legal obligation under the ADA to change her failing grade if she was not registered as disabled and had not previously requested accommodation. But they will, in many cases, if you engage with their process and bureaucracy in a constructive rather than adversarial way. That is the reality of a modern university. They may be a "year away" from a lawsuit, but being the person who pursues that redress won't help your kid succeed.

Step one, which OP never mentions having done, is to register for disabled status and request the accommodations you need, with medical support.

You can despise the system, but you need to make it work for you, not tilt at windmills when you have no legal basis for doing so.

Believe me or not, but I've changed many grades retroactively in my career in the process of working with ODS or the dean's office to help individual students through crises and reset clocks (including wiping out F grades) after a disability was finally recognized.

The dean's office is not a priori in an adversarial relationship with students. Nor are the faculty. The ODS certainly is an advocate, even if an often imperfect one. There is generally goodwill toward students who seem to be struggling and make efforts to confront their struggles at elite colleges.

But unless OP left out the part about filing for registered disability status before the class was failed, it's simply incorrect to refer to the F grade as an inadequate accommodation. Accommodations have to be requested in advance to be legally obligatory. That's a fact of the law.
posted by spitbull at 8:38 PM on June 25, 2017 [17 favorites]

As a licensed clinician familiar with depression :

I'd argue that a physician actively identified the symptoms of depression during the course and while being able to complete some tasks does not mean she was able to actively participate at a level everyone would coincider normal.

The depression is still being treated and is an active disease such requires learning and identifying new coping mechanisms and how depression effects her life and ability to function in a school setting.

I'd argue a for a withdrawal first because avoidance and inability to respond to stressors are classic depression symptoms and could be documented by a doctor.

I'd also advocate instead of a withdrawal for a grade replacement if she had the ability to take the course again in the fall.

Ultimately, the administration has the last word.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:50 PM on June 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Sorry just realized I used an acronym that may be unclear: "ODS" is "office of disability services" or similarly named entity. And yes they should undertake to represent your daughter through seeking *retroactive* (that is, not legally required) accommodations if at all possible, and I agree a do-over of the class with the new grade replacing the old F is the ideal accommodation to seek. I've done it that way quite a few times.

This is routine stuff for most disability offices and dean's office staffs. By the way an "Associate Dean" is a glorified title for an "academic adviser" in these days of title inflation. There are lots of them. They aren't distinguished senior scholars. They aren't really "deans" in the sense of having major authority. There is an actual Dean (and maybe vice dean) above them (Dean "of advising" or "of the College," usually) who is the actual voice of final authority. That's who you want to reach, and not with a lawyer but with a well crafted plan developed with your ODS staff.

Let UC's ODS deal with the dean's office, as AlexiaSky also wisely says, once they sort out what is possible.
posted by spitbull at 9:43 PM on June 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

my kid couldn’t possibly forget the deadline because my kid withdrew courses in previous years
I'm pretty sure your kid didn't forget to withdraw. Rather they were paralyzed by the symptoms of their illness that prevented them from dealing effectively with this problem.

Similarly, as AlexiaSky noted, her ability to complete some tasks and catch up in her other classes while still struggling significantly enough that she couldn't pull off the best response in her most stressful class is consistent with her combination of depression and anxiety.

It sounds to me like this associate dean needs some education on the impact of mental illness on student performance. This shouldn't come for you - ideally the disability office or, if that fails, maybe her therapist could write a letter explaining the connection between her diagnosis and her performance.
posted by metahawk at 10:03 PM on June 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

OP and some of the commenters seem to think that failing a class is the worst thing ever. It's not. Plenty of people (especially in Chicago) fail, get good grades later, and have good lives.

As a professor, I never took any pleasure in giving Fs. It's merely a reflection of what the student earned in that class, not a reflection of their general intellectual aptitude. Your kid was probably getting great grades in high school so this is a huge shock to all of you but it's really not a big deal. It will be much more traumatic for you and her to drag out this situation.

Also, disabilities are not a blanket protection against Fs. They only give you accommodations for deadlines and tests. It's still the student's responsibility to take advantage of those accommodations and seek help. How condescending would it be for a professor to never fail a student with disabilities?
posted by redlines at 10:32 PM on June 25, 2017 [20 favorites]

Also, if she got 3 As, she's clearly very bright, and her GPA will survive this in the end. I now work in industry, and do a fair bit of hiring, and would never give a solitary F a second thought if the rest of the application looks good. I think the same goes for many graduate programs. Medical schools may be a bit trickier, but the pre-med advisors could help navigate that.

With 3 As, her GPA for the quarter is 3.00, the same as getting all Bs. It's not a bad GPA in the slightest, and 3 As and a fail in some ways looks better than all Bs. One class can always be explained away.

You're more likely to sour her relationships with people who will be writing reference letters for her in the future if you pursue this when word gets around that you're a helicopter parent or that she's reactive.

For future quarters, she should take 3 courses if possible. 4 is something of an overload. It's better to do the prescribed number of things well than try to do too much and stress oneself out.
posted by redlines at 11:00 PM on June 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

[A couple deleted. Go ahead and offer your helpful suggestions, but please avoid making this about other commenters. (Also, if you've commented a couple of times, that's enough; this is about sincerely helping with your best advice, not winning an argument.)]
posted by taz (staff) at 1:37 AM on June 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

As a professor, I nth all the comments that the university is under no legal obligation to retroactively apply accommodations for a disability after it is disclosed and a course has ended. That standard isn't the greatest from a student standpoint, but it exists as a compromise to preserve the efficiency and effectiveness of the system in light of scarce administrative resources.

Your best course of action is to listen to the Associate Dean's advice to change your mode of communication. Email is the wrong medium. In-person conversations between your child (not you), ODS, and the Dean's office has the best chance to shift this from the adversarial position you now find yourself in to one of collaboration.

Unfortunately, some students have abused the system and claimed disability or mental illness to escape the natural consequences of poor performance. Externally, your child's case fits the fact pattern of these cases. Your child's goal should be to help the Associate Dean to see that she isn't a student looking for a loophole to exploit. Escalating the situation via emails is counterproductive to that goal.
posted by jtfowl0 at 2:34 AM on June 26, 2017 [9 favorites]

Just chiming in to say a lot of people get one F in college for what can be explained as a technical reason-- forgot to withdraw; deadline for completing a course missed for some reason; etc. It's a lot better than having the grades across the board that their average for that semester would suggest. Does she have an academic adviser and/or a person within her major, who believes she knows her stuff and will advocate for her when it comes time to apply to graduate school or for a job? Your story suggests she does know her stuff, academically.

If you're depressed, it's better NOT to treat something like this as the end of the world but to have a plan for moving forward.
posted by BibiRose at 5:54 AM on June 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Another professor here:

I agree that Disability Services is your best friend, and the student should work with them as much as possible.

The student should be the one interacting with the school, not the parent. This may be hard, but it's a lesson that needs to be learned. You cannot intervene for them in their adult life. Support your student and help them advocate for themselves.

Most schools have a "second grade option" for early-career students. Your student may be able to replace that F by redoing the course, possible during the summer sessions.

Disability Services may be able to put your student into contact with other campus services (e.g. Counseling Center, Student Success, At-Risk Monitoring) to help them cope with their school work and life on campus.

I go the extra mile for my students, but I need them to be active participants in their education. Documentation and honest discussion at the beginning of the semester is much better than panic and regrets at the end. There are "mean professors," but most want every student to succeed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:57 AM on June 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Someone mentioned a student ombudsman above - definitely see if the university has one, and if so, enlist that person. You also need to be working with disability services, but your ombudsman can help you with that.

This really does need to be something handled by your child, not you, but that doesn't mean they have to do it alone. The ombudsman, disability services, and perhaps mental health services if the school offers them, are trained and experienced in walking your child through this process and helping them learn to advocate for themselves, or advocating for them if their current mental health status does not allow them to fully handle the situation on their own.

That said, a note of personal experience: I flamed out spectacularly as an undergrad due in large part to untreated chronic mental health issues and my tendency to completely shut down when overwhelmed in very much the way you're describing. I did not have my shit together for a long time, did not know about the resources available to me, and nearly got kicked out at one point. My transcript is an ugly mess. It seemed like the end of the world at the time to me and, I suspect, to my parents.

And it has mattered not a bit in my adult life.

I eventually got my shit together enough to graduate (and in fact, to figure out that I was in the wrong major, after which I switched and my in-major GPA became fantastic and remained so). It wasn't pretty at all but it got done, and I got my first adult job and then my second and third and no one has ever cared about my GPA at all, much less any specific individual class I failed. The only thing that's tricky is that I would probably have a hard time getting into grad school because of it, but it's my understanding that even that is probably manageable if you put in some time in the working world and get some good references and GRE scores under your belt.

Which is to say: Yes, hook your child up with the right university resources and give them your love and support as you send them off to try to figure this out. (Or, if you think they really are not in a place to deal at this point, maybe think about whether a semester or year off to regroup would make sense.) But ultimately, this one grade is not the end of the world, and if your child is not able to get it changed, that's okay. It may honestly be the best thing to take the F and focus energy on how to move forward, than to keep expending energy on this, if the ombudsman and disability services can't help.
posted by Stacey at 7:08 AM on June 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

someone mentioned a student ombudsman

That was me. This is a great development now widespread at elite colleges. Here is the website of the U Chicago office of the student ombudsperson. Highly recommended that OP's child contact them first thing after registering as disabled.

And yeah, I've also done PhD admissions for 24 years and a single failed class in college, especially followed by an improvement and otherwise strong grades, is really common and not a major obstacle. We even see it as a sign of a motivated and self-sufficient person that they overcame that failure and pulled things together in subsequent semesters.

I fail to understand any advice to immediately leap to an adversarial stance when you have not exhausted non-adversarial options and given that you have no legal basis for creating a brouhaha. It won't work. Lawyers are expensive and this isn't a contingency fee case. I'm sure you can find one to take your money. And doing that will only harden the university's attitude and compel them to stick by the letter of the law (on their own more expensive lawyer's advice), which as everyone here who works in the business has said, is simply on the school's side here. Period.
posted by spitbull at 7:20 AM on June 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh: YES, re - lawyers.

I work in university administration (in a totally different capacity not related to grades and only rarely related to students) and I want to help the people I work with, with as much flexibility and compassion as I can manage. I will twist arms and plead your case way up above my head and do everything I can to make things work out for the people I'm here to help. I am not here to say no to you, I'm here to say "I see what you want to do, we maybe can't do it exactly that way, but let's work together and figure out a way forward that is going to get you where you want to be." I'm good at that.

But there's a big caveat there, and that is that the second you start talking lawyers, my arms are tied. I have to loop in legal, and legal will come down like a ton of bricks, and any wiggle room I might have had before to help you in ways that perhaps fit the spirit but not the precise wording of our policies/rules, or to make exceptions, I don't have now.

By all means document the hell out of things so that if at some point you do need to call in lawyers you have a great paper trail to show them. But be aware that universities (in my experience) shut down hard and fast the second lawyers enter the picture, and you will close off some paths that might have been open to you, and any goodwill that might have helped you. It's an option to have in your pocket, but it should be something you resort to only after you've tried the other options laid out here.
posted by Stacey at 7:38 AM on June 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh, also, I was on academic probation in my Freshman year (due in part to some poor mental health coping strategies), graduated with only so-so grades, did very well in grad programs, and I was just promoted to Full Professor. So that early stumble, while troublesome at the time, did not really hurt me in the long run. Your student's academic situation is not the end of the line, especially if they can work out (with help) strategies that will help them succeed in classes and at life. Help your student marshal their resources and move ahead.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:40 AM on June 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Came in to say, as others have said, that your son is asking for accommodation for a very real disability. It may require a lawyer to convince the school. You may also be able to push on any evidence that the school doesn't deal well with student mental health. I hope he's doing better.
posted by theora55 at 10:04 AM on June 26, 2017

Getting a lawyer and raising hell won't help the situation

It might help at my university. But my university is certainly not the University of Chicago.

There's some great advice here, especially about working with Disability Services and your daughter working on representing herself and advocating for herself.

My school has retroactive medical withdrawals available for students. Maybe Chicago doesn't since hasn't been offered, but it's something to ask about.

Bad advice is to just take the bad grade and consider it a lesson. Your daughter is ill and she should be able to exercise all the rights allowed to her under Federal law and the University system, Sadly, in this thread and at schools like University of Chicago, you will be fighting prejudice against recognizing mental illness as a real illness.

Universities being rigid about "the semester ended and the grade has been awarded" is no great thing for students who are working on diagnoses and trying to achieve the best treatment for their illness DURING a semester, whether it's for mental illness or physical illness. I've worked with students to recoup their GPA when it was harmed by undiagnosed bipolar, or diabetes, or Crohn's disease. They all deserve accommodations and recognition that universities should not impose a start date (as if the effects only start the day you bring your doctor's letter to Disability Services!) on a disease that has no basis in reality.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:24 AM on June 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

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