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In court fight, Union College asks for authority to expel student

In court fight, Union College asks for authority to expel student

Student alleges Union College has failed to provide academic accommodations
In court fight, Union College asks for authority to expel student
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

A lawyer for Union College last month asked a Schenectady County judge to lift an order preventing the college from expelling a student now working to finish his final year of college.

The student and the college have been at legal odds since last year in what started as a dispute over academic accommodations and devolved into legal wrangling after the student was accused of cheating and expelled last fall.

The student has also filed state and federal civil rights complaints alleging the college was “discriminating and retaliating against me due to my learning disabilities and my reasonable requests for accommodations.”

The student, who uses a pseudonym in legal filings, said since he was a young boy he has been diagnosed with various learning disabilities and disorders that challenge his ability to study and test in traditional learning environments.

The student ultimately picked Union and enrolled to start college in fall 2015; at that time, he thought the school was prepared to provide similar testing and classroom accommodations to what he received while in high school.

“I selected Union College because of its promises to me that it could meet all my learning plan requirements, its small class size, individual contact with professors and its purported commitment to students with learning disabilities,” the student wrote in the civil rights complaint. “Unfortunately, Union did not live up to its promises.”

The Albany Times Union first reported the presence of the civil rights complaint in July but did not report the related Schenectady County lawsuit at the time. The federal complaint was filed in May, but the student’s attorney said it was effectively moot until the Schenectady County litigation was resolved.

The student claimed that he struggled to get Union to meet the accommodations as he expected, with the situation getting worsening through his sophomore and junior years on campus. He argued the school did not meet a litany of accommodations he says administrators had promised to provide: Providing extra time to complete projects; providing a distraction-free place to take quizzes and tests; providing extra time for regular quizzes; among others. He claimed he was forced to take a quiz while sharing a desk with a professor who was completing other work.

The student in spring 2018 along with his parents met with Union’s director of accommodation services, who the student claimed promised to do more to ensure his accommodations were provided. But, the student argues in the civil rights complaint, instead the college blamed his low grades on him being lazy and “targeted me because I continued to advocate for my rights.”

In March 2018, the student was accused of cheating on a math exam he took in the college’s academic accommodations office with two other students. The student denied cheating; another student in the room swore an affidavit that they did not cheat or see anyone cheating during the test.

The student appealed the determination he had violated the college honor code four times, but in a letter dated Nov. 12, Storm Thacker, vice president of academic affairs, informed the student his appeals were without merit and that he was permanently expelled.

The student and his lawyers filed a motion to prevent the college from expelling him, arguing the process used to determine the disciplinary action was unjust. The student also filed a civil complaint, alleging Union of breach of contract and other claims related to the college not providing the student his accommodations.

On November 14, Schenectady County Supreme Court Judge Thomas D. Buchanan granted the Union College student a temporary restraining order to prevent Union from “expelling or otherwise sanctioning” the student based on the determination he violated the college’s honor code.

Union is now asking for the court to lift that order so that it can move forward with removing the student – if not for the original disciplinary action, for something else.

Attorney Michael Basile, representing Union, in August moved that the judge terminate the temporary restraining order or limit the order so Union is “not barred or restricted from expelling or removing (the student)… for matters unrelated” to the disputed disciplinary matter.

Meanwhile, the student’s attorney, Scott Iseman, said that the student returned to class this semester but argued college officials and faculty were retaliating against him because of the ongoing lawsuit. Iseman claimed professors were reluctant to talk to the student at all.

“Over the past months, basically he’s become persona non grata,” Iseman said. “Faculty won’t speak with him, it’s very difficult to get responses from faculty.”

He also said the college is trying to remove the student for poor academic performance, performance that Iseman argued was the result of the disciplinary action he and his client continue to contest.

“They’re trying to get him kicked out for grade deficiency even though the grade deficiency is related to the lack of accommodations,” Iseman said.

Phil Wajda, a spokesman for Union College, said the college would not comment on specific legal claims “to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of all involved.” But he added that the college’s office of disability services “works with all students who have a documented accommodation need who request assistance to ensure we provide those students with the best support possible.”

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