Here’s How the Administration Treats Students with Emotional Support Animals

“[The administration] told someone with a documented anxiety disorder to just wait and chill.”

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Author’s note: This article discusses sexual assault and trauma.

You’ve probably noticed by now that household animals are not a totally uncommon sight around Wesleyan. Some people like to keep pets for the fun of it (which you’re technically not supposed to do), but for other students, these animals are helping them cope with and recover from traumatic events and other serious psychiatric illnesses that may arise.

Students with disabilities are allowed to bring an emotional support animal (ESA) to campus to provide emotional support, stability, and other means of help. But as nice as that sounds, the process of getting an ESA approved is incredibly grueling and emotionally draining. It requires a great deal of effort on the part of the student (who is already dealing with a lot) to provide a gargantuan amount of documentation, which can then be denied by the university for any number of reasons.

According to Wesleyan’s ESA policy, this includes, “…1) verification of the student’s diagnosis, including severity of condition, and impact on major life functions, 2) statement on how the animal serves as an accommodation for the documented disability, and 3) statement on how the need for the ESA relates to the ability of the student to use and gain benefit from University housing.”

If a student houses an animal without the approval, heavy fines are sanctioned ($300 for just the first offense), and if the animal isn’t removed, suspension and other disciplinary penalties are put on the table.

As you can probably already tell, huge problems arise when students who are already having a hard time are told they have to go through several complicated steps to get a source of emotional comfort on campus. As Olivia Chavez ’15, a member of Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights, pointed out to alt in a previous Wesleying article, administrators like to have standardized systems for helping students, but each person’s case is so different that often procedures meant to streamline the process become messy, drawn-out, and emotionally draining. Trying to put students with disabilities into a one-size-fit-all category simply doesn’t work, nor is it right.

So, what can go wrong with how the administration handles students with disabilities who have ESAs on campus? Unsurprisingly, a lot.

One of the most prominent cases on campus currently is that of Lexie Malico ’16, who adopted a puppy named Watson in January 2015 several months after being sexually assaulted by a peer and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is an anxiety disorder, where symptoms include (but are not limited to) flashbacks of the event, panic attacks, and hyper-arousal. Malico went through the arduous process of getting Watson “approved” to be on campus and noticed an improvement in her academic and emotional wellbeing immediately.

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Lexie Malico ’16 and her dog Watson

However, this past month, Malico received an email out of the blue from Stacey Phelps, Assistant Director of ResLife, requesting to talk about her “housing situation” and refusing to give specifics. Thinking that it was regarding her housemates, Malico was surprised to show up to the meeting and find Dean David Phillips (the 2016 class dean) there, too. She was promptly told that her housemates had issues with her dog, that they (the administrators) didn’t think that Watson was a “good fit” for Wesleyan, and that he needed to be gone by the end of the week.

In addition, Malico was told that she was no longer allowed to live in her apartment. She was promptly moved to other on-campus housing to live by herself, and Phelps and Phillips did not present off-campus housing as an option, meaning she could not stay with her dog despite needing him for her mental, emotional, and physical health.

“It was amazing to me how badly it was handled [on the part of the administration],” says Malico. “When we were talking, I actually told them I wanted to call my mom, and they wouldn’t let me call her. Legally, they are obligated to let me have counsel. But they kept saying, ‘Well, let’s just finish this’ and wouldn’t let me talk to her. They essentially told someone with a documented anxiety disorder to just wait and chill.”

Things only got worse when the surprise meeting led to Malico having a panic attack in the room–and she was asked if she needed an asthma inhaler to calm down.

After getting a nine-day extension on removing her dog from campus, Malico began fighting the decision and also started an online petition (which you can find and sign HERE) to not only keep Watson at Wes but to also bring awareness to 1) how grueling the process of getting an ESA approved in the first place can be, and 2) how poorly the administration handles students who don’t fit the mold to the “typical, well-adjusted Wesleyan student.” The petition garnered over 1,200 signatures in less than three days.

Malico’s petition also seems to be leading the administration to bend a little bit more than they had originally intended to. She now may be able to appeal the decision to not let her seek off-campus housing (which, if overturned, would allow her to live in an apartment with her dog). “The petition has now at least given me some [sort] of options,” she says.

Unfortunately, Malico is most definitely not the first (or the last) student on campus to have problems with the administration in terms of how they converse students with disabilities or anything that doesn’t make them “normal” students on campus. Many students find themselves questioned repeatedly, second-guessed, and forced to give in to solutions that rarely help them but most definitely keep things under wraps for the university.

Interested in talking about your dealings with the administration? Email us at staff(at)wesleying(dot)org. And once again, you can find Lexie Malico’s petition here.

  • Watson

    “Gargantuan amount of paperwork” – it’s three forms with minimal requirements. It’s not nearly as much paperwork as we do weekly in class or as on the app we did to get into this place. Can people stop being so hyperbolic?

  • ’14

    The way the school deals with mental health in general is not great. CAPS repeatedly pushed antidepressants on me for my anxiety disorder rather than other options because the other options were perceived as “habit-forming” (like in that way that wearing glasses is habit-forming because you can actually function and you get accustomed to being able to see), and they don’t prescribe ADHD meds at all unless you go through a SUPER expensive evaluation. I ended up having to go through the complicated process of finding a psychiatrist off campus who would actually believe me and take my mental health needs seriously, rather than treating me like a criminal who couldn’t be trusted with the meds I needed. I wish the school would LISTEN to us instead of treating us like we’re intentionally trying to flout the rules for fun.

  • Student

    She repeatedly violated terms of her handler agreement which has gone on since she got the dog. This story presents an extemely biased side which really doesn’t tell the whole truth. The administration does genuinely want to help students with disabilities, and as a student with an esa myself I can say that I have had nothing but support. From what I understand, Lexie did not train her dog well and did a poor job of acclimating the dog to living in an apartment with other people, which is part of the agreement she signed with the school. If living off campus is the best option then so be it, but it is wrong to demonize the administration when they are trying to make the best outcome for everyone out of a complex situation.

    • Student ’16

      Regardless, it was wrong to initially tell her that she couldn’t even live OFF campus with the dog, and it was wrong to not allow her to call her parent. I’m not sure if she actually has a legal right to call her mom, but there is really no justification to disallow it.

    • Other Student

      How was your experience with ResLife officials in particular (Not just those administrators that deal with disabilities)? Were they caring/uncaring, helpful/unhelpful, pleased/displeased?

  • Student ’16

    The way ResLife handles students who, as the article states, “don’t fit the mold to the ‘typical, well-adjusted Wesleyan students'” is beyond embarrassing. Instead of using the individual agency their position empowers them with to solve unique problems, ResLife administrators repeatedly defer to their golden rule book – regardless of situation or circumstance – and let the student deal with whatever fallout may occur.

    There is a reason students repeatedly complain about Stacey Phelps in particular. It goes beyond her role as an enforcer of rules; she is terrible at her job and displays a complete disregard for student welfare. Instead of trying to find a solution to help students, her first response to any complaint is find an excuse for it in the rulebook. At some point, her superiors need to recognize that the uniform student disapproval of her job performance goes beyond what would would normally be expected from someone who performs her duties.

    She needs to be transferred to another role or resign.

    • Alumn ’14

      Alum ’14

      Yeah Stacey Phelps has been objectively bad at her job for as long as I’ve had the displeasure of dealing with her. It’s absurd. She will detail why she is right but in situations where that doesn’t change the issue she does everything in her power to make life more difficult for students.

      • needs to be said

        Even administrators I’ve talked to (who I won’t name for obvious reasons) have had less than complimentary things to say about her. She shouldn’t be in the business of interacting with students. She works in a community, not a bureaucracy.

  • Woof

    What were the problems that Lexie’s roomates had with the dog? Why did the administration think that Watson wasn’t a good fit for Wesleyan? It looks like only one side of the story is being told here.

    • Bark

      They did not like the playing, the toys on the floor, the smell of dog in the apartment, the fact that if they left food unattended, he would eat it, and that he would bark when he was excited, nervous, or someone came in late at night.

      • Woof

        What were the administration’s reasons for wanting Watson removed from campus rather than just moving Lexie and Watson into a different residence?

        • cat

          Objection: dog acts like dog

      • Wes ’16

        Also, Lexie forgot to mention that her solution to keeping Watson calm enough for her roommates was to give Watson Xanax. I think the administration had a problem with a dog that needed to be medicated in order for it to be compliant with the university’s rules.

        • Bark

          Watson didn’t start getting Xanax until after moving off-campus. He also has an anxiety disorder, so if the university has a problem with putting an animal with a documented anxiety problem on anxiety meds and say that he is not a “good fit for Wesleyan” for that reason, then we have bigger problems.

  • Wes

    This is shitty journalism

    • jack

      this is shitty commenting

      • ayo

        THIS is podracing