Getty Images

A Student Is Suing Her College Because She Failed A Test -- But It's Actually More Complicated

Schools are legally required to accommodate students' mental health issues during finals. Here's how, and why.

By Tom McKay

Jennifer Burbella, a nursing student from Misericordia University in Pennsylvania, has filed a federal lawsuit against the school, claiming its staff didn't make legally required accommodations for her psychiatric symptoms including anxiety, depression and poor concentration. As a result, Burbella says, she failed a required class twice and the school kicked her out of the program.

It's being shared as an outrageous story, but -- as a Columbia University legal expert tells MTV News -- the lawsuit may have serious merit.

Burbella claims she was pressured into retaking the class shortly after failing it the first time, even though the university failed to provide more time or interaction with the professor during a crucial examination. "She’s not looking for the university to ordain that she get this degree, she’s looking for a fair opportunity, which the [Americans With Disabilities Act] statute provides, to take the exam," Burbella's lawyer told WNEP for the report below.

We reached out to Dr. Paul Appelbaum, director of Columbia University's Division of Law, Ethics and Psychiatry, who explains that there is no longer any legal question of whether colleges should accommodate mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

"Colleges and universities simply must offer reasonable accomodations to their students," Dr. Appelbaum told MTV.

Such routine adjustments, Dr. Appelbaum says, include letting students with anxiety or learning disabilities take more time to finish an exam, or allowing those with ADHD to work in a quiet environment. Unfortunately, Appelbaum added that it is "fairly common" for people with psychiatric conditions to fear being stigmatized if they ask for extra assistance.

"In order to obtain accommodations, students have to ask for it -- they have to self-disclose that they have a psychiatric disorder or other problem that requires some kind of special treatment," he said. "Many students and employees are reluctant to do that because they are understandably concerned that ... teachers or administrators at schools will treat them differently."

The feared backlash is made worse due to a widespread misperception that "if you have a mental disorder, then clearly you can't be capable of carrying out your work task or school training," Appelbaum says. "In fact, you can see a student [in WNEP's report] express that view...."

Classmates and internet commenters may be dismissive of Burbella's lawsuit, but whatever the decision, it'll be no laughing matter when she has her day in court.