In a campus-wide email on Feb. 22, Dartmouth Student Government announced its proposed changes to several aspects of the College’s current medical leave policy, including making the language of the policy more inclusive and allowing students to access College library resources while on leave.
Under the current medical leave policy, students may take time away for either medical or personal reasons but are unable to engage with Dartmouth’s resources, such as using remote library resources or meeting advisors, according to the College’s website on the policy. Medical leave can be either voluntary — in which a student decides to go on leave — or involuntary, in which an appropriate medical professional makes the decision for the student, DSG vice president and mental health committee co-chair Jessica Chiriboga ’24 said.
According to Chiriboga, Dartmouth is currently re-evaluating its medical leave policy, which was last modified in 2019, after students called on the College to change the policy. She added that the JED foundation — which conducted research on the College’s mental health policies — and its student focus groups recommended that the College make several amendments to its current medical leave policy.
“There were [always] changes needed to medical leave, but the JED process gave us a vehicle through which we could formalize evaluation in the medical leave policy and get students involved in providing feedback on it,” Chiriboga said.
According to director of communications for student affairs Elizabeth Ellis, communication from the College about potential revisions will be “rolled out” in the spring term.
“[The College has] received feedback from a broad group of students, faculty and staff and hope[s] to communicate our findings and any policy changes or clarifications this spring,” Ellis wrote in an email statement.
One of the biggest issues with the current policy was that “a lot of students were confused about the process,” Chiriboga said.
“[Students] felt isolated, and didn’t know what resources they could take,” she said. “The policy was very legalistic and it wasn’t written in a way that seemed affirming of the fact that students might have to take time away from Dartmouth for a variety of reasons.”
According to Chiriboga, there are several changes to the medical leave policy for which DSG is advocating, including semantic changes. Chiriboga said that the phrase “medical time away” better represents the variety of reasons students may leave campus, as well as reducing the “legalistic” language of the existing policy. According to Chiriboga, this change of phrasing would destigmatize taking medical leave.
Another change to the policy would give students a week to appeal an involuntary medical leave decision. Currently, students placed on involuntary medical leave have three days to appeal, which may not be enough time for them to consult friends, family and advisors about whether medical leave is “the best option for them,” Chiriboga said.
“Students [are] upset about that and feel like that’s just not a fair process,” Chiriboga said. “Three days in the busy 10-week term is a very short amount of time.”
Further changes to the policy would see that students on medical leave no longer be required to leave campus within three days after being placed on voluntary or involuntary medical leave. Instead, DSG thinks that students on medical leave should be allowed at least a week to leave campus. She added that DSG is calling for “small solutions,” such as allowing student employees to continue working or allowing students to use remote library resources, which would allow them to feel “better supported.”
“Some students on medical leave report being escorted from campus by the Department of Safety and Security officers,” Chiriboga said. “Their leave from campus was approached in a very punitive way.”
DSG is also calling for the elimination of the requirement for students on medical leave to engage in “sustained productive activities” before re-enrolling in classes, such as employment or volunteer work.
Chiriboga said the language outlining the requirements for students on leave is unclear and makes it sound like they must participate in other activities rather than focusing on their recovery. In addition, DSG wants to see a clearly stated commitment that the financial aid office or the counseling center can help a student on medical leave purchase an additional year of insurance, as is already in practice, according to Chiriboga. She added that peer institutions — such as Yale University — provide financial aid for the health insurance of students on leave who receive the highest level of financial aid. The Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies also pays for the medical insurance of graduate students on leave for one term, Chiriboga said.
Chiriboga noted the necessity of the College to provide funding for food and housing for financially insecure students on leave.
“It’s really difficult for students to take medical time away,” Chiriboga said. “They might be going to an unsafe housing situation, they might not have adequate housing or they might not have adequate access to food.”
According to Dartmouth Mental Health Student Union co-chair Adithi Jayaraman ’24, who is on the JED undergraduate committee, MHU does not have “jurisdiction” over the medical leave policy itself. Instead, it serves as a channel for wellness advocacy, while the administration dictates the policy, she said.
Jayaraman also said that she felt that the language in the current medical leave policy is “legalistic.” She noted the strictness of the College’s current policy on not having access to resources, adding that an activity as simple as messaging in a GroupMe is not allowed because it would count as engaging with a Dartmouth organization.
Chiriboga also highlighted the importance of communication between the student body and administration particularly for mental health policies.
“A lot of people at Dartmouth want to see change made, but sometimes the avenues for communication just aren’t there,” she said.
Chiriboga is a former member of The Dartmouth staff.
Correction appended (March 7, 7:20 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that DSG wants to overturn a policy that prevents students under the Dartmouth Group Healthcare plan from accessing their insurance if they are on medical leave. After the publication of the article, Chiriboga clarified that DSG wants in-practice policies about renewing health insurance to be more clearly communicated. This article has been updated.