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