Student sues College over disability accommodations

by Julian Nathan | 4/27/17 2:15am

Staci Mannella ’18, who suffers from achromatopsia and is legally blind, recently filed a lawsuit against the College claiming that she did not receive accommodations to which she is entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She said that she did not expect her condition to adversely affect her academic performance at Dartmouth because, prior to her matriculation to the College, she was assured by director of Student Accessibility Services Ward Newmeyer that his office would provide her with appropriate accommodations.

Mannella and her attorney, Rosemarie Arnold, who is Mannella’s aunt, claim SAS has not followed through on Newmeyer’s assurances. In her complaint, Mannella alleges that on several occasions, the College delayed or failed to provide her with note-takers, test readers, lab assistants and other visual aids like Echo360. Echo360 is a recording system that allows visually impaired students to record video, audio and computer display inputs during lectures in real-time.

In an interview, Mannella recounted several occasions when she did not receive course materials in an accessible format until after the academic term had already begun. She also recalled multiple occasions when she had to analyze images during exams without the assistance of a test reader. She added that her instructors would sometimes place her into groups with other students during lab classes in lieu of providing her with a lab assistant. On the occasions when the College did provide her with laboratory assistants, Mannella said that these assistants often did not have appropriate training to assist her as she completed her coursework.

In a biology class, Mannella said her instructor gave the class a lengthy practice test to prepare for an upcoming exam. Mannella said she did not receive the answer key to the practice test in an accessible format until after she had taken the graded exam, rendering the practice test useless. She added that she had asked for the practice test answer key multiple times prior to the administration of the graded exam.

Mannella said she believes that these circumstances have put her at a considerable disadvantage compared to other students at the College.

Arnold said that in this case, the College violated the ADA from the moment her niece enrolled at Dartmouth. Arnold explained that upon Mannella’s arrival on campus, SAS did not provide Mannella with a map of the campus that she could use. She added that SAS also did not arrange for Mannella to be escorted to her dormitory, classrooms or dining halls.

Mannella said that instead of providing her with accommodations in all of her classes, Newmeyer instituted unnecessary changes in an attempt to help her acclimate to campus life. As an example, upon her arrival at Dartmouth, Newmeyer offered to remove a stove from her dormitory. Mannella told him that despite her visual impairments, she is able to operate a stove and that removing it would have been unnecessary.

Arnold said that Newmeyer “fell woefully short of his responsibilities [as director of SAS].”

When Mannella complained to administrators that she believed her grades in five courses had suffered as a result of the lack of accommodations, officials told her that she could retake these classes for a higher grade, Arnold said.

Mannella is asking that the College change her grades in these five courses, Arnold said. She added that the proposed changes would only improve each grade by one-third of a letter grade, namely from a B+ to an A- or from an A- to an A.

Arnold explained that since the College is insisting Mannella retake these classes in order to improve her grades, she and Mannella are seeking damages to cover the cost of tuition for these classes.

Arnold explained that it is unusual for a student to sue an institution that does not provide them with accommodations because such lawsuits typically require students to pay expensive attorneys’ fees. Arnold said because she is Mannella’s aunt, she is not charging her niece, which will afford Mannella a unique opportunity to challenge the College in court.

Mannella filed her case against the College on Oct. 27, 2016, in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, Mannella’s home state. After several months of back-and-forth between the parties, the case was dismissed in February so the parties could enter mediation outside of court. Mannella and the College could not reach a settlement, so the case was reopened on April 5.

In the court filing, attorneys representing the College asked that the court dismiss Mannella’s lawsuit because Arnold filed it in New Jersey instead of in New Hampshire, Arnold said. Arnold explained that should the College succeed in this motion, Mannella would have to re-file her lawsuit in New Hampshire.

She said she believes the College filed this motion only to make it more expensive and complicated for Mannella to continue with her lawsuit.

She noted that since the ADA is a federal law, Dartmouth is no more likely to obtain a favorable ruling in one state versus the other. She also said that New Jersey is an appropriate location for the suit because the College made promises to provide Mannella with accommodations while she was in the state and because Dartmouth has a significant recruiting presence in the state.

Both Mannella and Arnold said College officials vastly improved the accommodations they provided to Mannella after she filed her lawsuit, indicating that they recognize their liability. Mannella said that since she filed her lawsuit, College officials have ensured that Echo360 is available to her in all of her classes.

Newmeyer referred requests for comment to College spokesperson Diana Lawrence.

“We believe that the claims in the lawsuit have no merit and that we have met all of our legal obligations to Staci,” Lawrence wrote in an email statement, adding that she is a valuable member of the community.

Lawrence declined to comment further, citing pending litigation.

April 27: The Dartmouth incorrectly suggested that Mannella sought an escort to her dormitory, classrooms and dining hall permanently. Instead, Mannella only sought an escort to these locations - as promised by SAS - one time upon arriving to campus, so that she could navigate herself for the rest of the term. The Dartmouth regrets this error.