Friday, September 25, 2009

Five female students sue Western University of Health Sciences for disability discrimination

From The Daily Bulletin in California:

POMONA, Calif. - Five women are suing Western University of Health Sciences, alleging they were subjected to unfair academic practices and discrimination based on disabilities.

Steve Rivas, the attorney representing the women, filed the complaint Sept. 25 in downtown Los Angeles and said he planned to serve the university with the suit this week.

University spokesman Jeff Keating said administrators are reviewing the complaint but declined to discuss its specifics.

"Western University takes any and all concerns of students, staff and others seriously, and we will make every effort to address these concerns when they are brought to our attention," Keating said.

All five women - Hope Hedrick, Nalini Swain, Angelina Beeks, Ellen Fassnacht and Victoria Moreno - were enrolled in the university's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Swain, Hedrick and Beeks started the four-year program in 2005, Moreno and Fassnacht in 2006. Only Beeks is still enrolled at Western.

The women are seeking up to $4.5 million in damages and reimbursement, Rivas said.

In the lawsuit, the women claim the university forced students to retake classes they had already passed, tampered with grades, failed to provide proper instruction and did not properly accommodate disabilities.

The women allege students who failed a single course were required to repeat an entire year of coursework.

"I have been there four years already, and I'm not done with my second year," Beeks said. "They are holding me back."

Keating said the college does not force students to retake classes they have passed and that if a student failed one class, he or she would not have to retake the entire year, as the women allege.

The women also claim the university's grading system is flawed - that percentages and averages did not add up, tests scores were changed and papers were withheld from the students, resulting in failing grades.

Three of the women involved in the lawsuit said they have disabilities that the university failed to accommodate.

Beeks underwent treatment for breast cancer while enrolled, Hedrick has a hearing disability, and Fassnacht has a learning disability.

Beeks said administrators did not allow her to make up tests and other coursework she missed because of cancer treatments.

Hedrick, who was a registered veterinarian technician when she entered the program, said no accommodations were made initially to address her hearing disability, and that once she requested assistance, she was told she was responsible for taking care of it herself.

Fassnacht said instructors did not make accommodations for her learning disability.

Keating said the university takes pride in its Center for Disability Issues and the Health Professions, which was designed to address disabilities.

The women also allege the university failed to provide instruction, essentially leaving them to learn on their own.

"I went to them saying, `I'm paying you to teach me,' and they told me, `One, we don't do that here, and two, that's your responsibility,"' Beeks said.

Keating said the college offers a problem-based learning curriculum and has had a great deal of success with it.

"The idea behind the PBL is that you are fairly quickly immersed in the actual doing," he said. "It's not a lot of instructors standing in front of a classroom."

The women also said they were told the college would be fully accredited by the time the 2007 class graduated, but that has not happened.

"That's why you go there," Swain said. "We chose to go there because of what they said, because of what they implied."

The college has limited accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association, which means there are areas the university needs to address before it is fully accredited, Keating said.

Full accreditation is the university's objective, but a timeline is uncertain, he said.

The university's College of Veterinary Medicine was launched in 2003. Annual tuition is about $38,000, according to the lawsuit.