Mental Health Leave Policies
BY JOHN H. DUNKLE, ZACHARY B. SILVERSTEIN, AND SCOTT L. WARNER
When a student’s mental health problems become disruptive to a campus community or compromise his or
her ability to remain in school, many administrators consider a leave of absence. Invariably, this decision
involves a host of challenges and questions. How do institutions protect the health and safety of the
student and the community? How do campus policies and the sometimes confusing tangle of state and federal privacy and
disability laws apply? What’s the best way to minimize risk of liability? Senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) need to consider a
number of factors when administering leave policies for students with mental health concerns.
When to consider a leave. A leave may be appropriate
when a student engages in self-harm; makes threats of
violence toward self or others; or appears not to comprehend
reality or the consequences of his or her actions. Ideally, an
interdisciplinary campus threat assessment team (sometimes
known by other names) will aid in identifying and assessing
potential leave situations. If your institution has a good leave
policy, as it should, you may find guidance there.
Voluntary leave. Often students with pressing mental
health concerns will seek or agree to a voluntary leave.
Voluntary leave, especially with the support of the student’s
parents, other family members, and/or health care providers,
can be a great way to help a student get back on track to
complete his or her education.
Involuntary leave. When a student cannot remain on
campus but refuses to leave, an involuntary leave may be
appropriate. Some administrators and others view an involuntary leave with great suspicion. For those institutions
contemplating an involuntary leave, the Office for Civil
Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces
the federal disability laws applicable to virtually all educational institutions in the country, has issued explicit guidance.
The key to determining whether an involuntary leave is
legally permissible is the direct threat standard. A direct threat
exists when a student’s disability-related conduct poses a
significant risk to the health or safety of the student or others.
There must be a high probability of substantial harm rather
than a slightly increased, speculative, or remote risk.
To determine whether a direct threat exists, an individualized and objective assessment must be conducted of the
student’s ability to participate safely in the educational
program. Make a reasonable judgment based upon current
medical knowledge or the best available objective evidence
and avoid making generalizations or thinking in stereotypes.
The assessment must ascertain:
• the nature, duration, and severity of the risk;
• the probability that potentially threatening injury actually
will occur; and
• whether reasonable modifications of policies, practices, or
procedures will sufficiently mitigate the risk.
Document your decision and the basis for it. Do so in
an objective, fact-based manner. If the decision is challenged,
your office will have a good record of how it complied with