The university has drafted a policy that would allow them to mandate a leave of absence for a student whose behaviour puts themselves or others at risk, negatively impacts other students’ ability to learn, or significantly inhibits their ability to complete their studies. While these seem like reasonable causes for removing a student from studies — in fact there are other policies, albeit punitive policies, in place that already do this — this policy is controversial in certain circles, as it deals with behaviours provoked by mental health issues or similar illnesses.
When evaluating policy, it is important to move from critical thought to a conclusion rather than letting presumptions guide our critical thought process. If we were to presume that those enforcing this policy were eternally benevolent, it would follow that no harm would come from the application of the policy, and the reverse is also true. Neither of these stances will yield us much insight into the policy itself though, and so to address the policy without presumption, let’s look to the policy’s purpose and what led to it.
In her 2014–2015 annual report, the Ombudsperson suggested that a new policy be drafted in addition or parallel to the Code of Student Conduct and the Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters. The Ombudsperson’s primary concern was not one of legality, as the current policies conform to current legislation. Instead, her concern was with the university’s lack of framework to address situations in which students who demonstrate the aforementioned behaviours refuse accommodations. This concern was the impetus for the mandatory element of the policy.
Everyone should understand that this policy falls within the jurisdiction of the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy on preventing discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addictions. In other words, the policy does not provide the university with the means to discriminate or break the law.
The policy therefore does not give license to the university to perform a mental health witch hunt, as some students may fear. If there are concerns that the policy may be used by the administration as a discriminatory tool, those concerns do not pertain to the policy as much as they do to beliefs in whether we have an effective justice system or an ethical administration.
The current working draft of the policy offers a non-punitive alternative for students whose behaviour is either known to or believed to be caused by mental health or other health issues. It is important to note that students’ behaviour provides the impetus to potentially invoke the policy; mental illness alone is not sufficient. Additionally, if the university feels it is necessary to invoke mandatory leave, there will be no punitive mark on the student’s academic record, unlike the current policies. The removal of punitive repercussions was not suggested in the 2014–2015 Ombudsperson’s report, and it is a major achievement of the drafted policy.
A critique of the policy, and one we support, is that the language is too vague at times — specifically as it pertains to the “Threshold of Intervention” section. However, there are two things worth noting in this respect. First, as already mentioned, there are a number of legal restrictions that limit the scope of the policy and do not need to be restated within it. Second, some vagueness is likely intentional, so as not to exempt students who may benefit from the policy. For example, the current threshold for intervention allows students with acquired brain injuries to benefit from the policy. It is possible that by more specifically defining which symptoms of mental illness are applicable, the policy would become less effective, because the legal scope within which it is designed to operate would consequently diminish.
This policy has real potential to demonstrate how a community of students, faculty, and administrators can slowly extinguish institutional or structural stigma. The amount of effort and time that has gone into this policy is proof of a community that is willing to fight the stigma that surrounds it. We, as a community, are responsible for the critical evaluation and betterment of this policy.
The Academic Board and University Affairs Board will vote on whether to recommend the policy to Governing Council on January 25 and 30, respectively, following a two-month delay.
Sean Smith is a fourth-year student at Woodsworth College studying English and Philosophy. He is the Chapter Lead for the Jack.org Chapter at UTSG. Jack.org is a nationwide youth mental health charity dedicated to raising awareness about mental health issues and to challenging stigma in our communities. He also sits on The Varsity‘s Board of Directors.