A pregnant student asked for accommodations from a Utah college. They said no. Then the feds came in.

The Department of Education chastised Salt Lake Community College for denying accommodations to a student with severe morning sickness.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign at Salt Lake Community College is pictured in 2019. On Tuesday, June 14, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education released its findings that the college discriminated against a pregnant student.

The morning sickness was so bad she often couldn’t get to her first class of the day at Salt Lake Community College.

She told her professor that since she had found out she was pregnant, she had been getting extremely nauseous, sometimes for hours, and was often unable to eat. She asked for academic accommodations for the times she was ill, like permission to come to class a little later and extra time on assignments.

Instead, the professor advised her that it would be better if she just dropped the course. There was no way she was going to pass, she remembers the professor saying, and she needed to “take some responsibility” for what she was going through.

Frustrated, the student went to the Disability Resource Center on SLCC’s campus and the Title IX office. Both also declined to help her. Neither investigated her concerns.

In a damning letter Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education said that treatment from the Utah college was intentional discrimination. And now the school will be under federal review until it makes a series of improvements.

“We look forward to working with Salt Lake Community College to promote a nondiscriminatory educational environment by ensuring pregnant students’ equal access to the college’s offerings,” said Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, in a statement.

It is not clear how federal officials learned of the case or when they began reviewing it — the exact dates are redacted in the documents released Tuesday — but they do note at one point that it was when SLCC returned to in-person classes after a short time online during the COVID-19 pandemic. That likely puts it around fall 2020.

The student had originally enrolled expecting to be able to do her coursework online. When she found out about the switch, around the same time she also learned she was pregnant, she dropped one class and stayed enrolled in three others.

Her name is also withheld in the documents to protect her privacy.

Two of her classes were later in the day, which did not present an issue. But the one where she ran into concerns was in the morning when she was often sick; that was the only time it was offered, though, and it was a prerequisite for other courses, the Department of Education notes in its findings.

She didn’t want to drop it. The department says she should never have been asked to.

Both Title IX, which prohibits schools that accept federal money from discriminating on the basis of sex, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects students with disabilities, recognize pregnant women as a protected class. The department’s Office for Civil Rights says SLCC violated both laws.

In a statement in response to the findings Tuesday, the school — which has the most working students and parents enrolled of any of the eight public colleges in the state — said it is “dedicated to creating an inclusive, welcoming environment for all students and takes all complaints regarding discrimination seriously.”

It pledged to work with the department to better aid pregnant students who need accommodations. Administrators will also sit down with the student who spurred the case to come to a resolution with her. She withdrew from the school after her experience.

What happened

The student knew her professor had a strict policy for absences.

Anyone who missed 20% of the class would not be eligible to pass, according to the syllabus, which is quoted in the findings. The professor also considered three late arrivals the equivalent of an absence.

The student said she tried to talk to the professor early, when her morning sickness started, to address that. She had been late a few times, when any movement made her dizzy and sent her retching to the restroom. She hadn’t yet hit the threshold spelled out for too many absences. She figured she soon would, though.

She also knew she would need some accommodations to complete the coursework. She brought in a doctor’s note to show her professor proof that — even with medication to help — the pregnancy had been rough, causing her to lose sleep and affecting her ability to focus.

The professor budged slightly, allowing for a few extra absences, but said she would deduct points for any assignments turned in late.

And then, for the first time, the professor told her she should drop the course, the student told the Department of Education.

The student was taken aback, she said, and didn’t know how to respond. So she followed up with an email shortly after.

The professor responded, advising for a second time she should drop the course. She said she was “concerned” that the student “had decided to continue” with the class this semester. She said she should put her health first and be responsible for her decisions.

The professor did not refer her to any resources, the Department of Education noted.

In a written statement to investigators, the professor acknowledged the conversations with the student about her pregnancy but denied to them and to the Title IX coordinator at SLCC that she had ever advised the student to withdraw from the class.

The student decided to go next to the Disability Resource Center at SLCC to help her navigate the standoff. The center correctly said pregnancy falls under Title IX — though it also falls under the law for temporary disabilities — and referred her there, instead.

She twice emailed the Title IX coordinator at SLCC, according to the documents, describing her nausea and her interactions with the professor. She specifically wrote that the professor told her that “pregnancy isn’t normally something that can be accommodated.”

The coordinator had a brief conversation with her, he told federal investigators, but didn’t document it.

Instead, he next talked with the professor, who told him that she felt the accommodations were not reasonable and would fundamentally alter the class. He didn’t document that chat, either, but he did decide in favor of the professor.

And he defended that decision, according to the Office for Civil Rights, in interviews with investigators, though they note he was unable to cite any policy that supported it. The investigators also say he continually mischaracterized the accommodations the student was seeking.

After talking with the professor, the coordinator spoke with the student on the phone and informed her of his decision. He did not email her with a formal denial, provide her with a written statement or inform her of her appeal rights. And he did not explore any possible alternative accommodations.

Additionally, federal officials note, he did nothing to investigate, claiming that he didn’t because the student never asked him to do so.

Those actions go against federal policies meant to prevent discrimination.

Failures and a resolution

Schools are explicitly supposed to provide accommodations for students who are pregnant, which is considered a temporary disability in cases with extreme sickness, according to federal law.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states: “Although a normal, healthy pregnancy is generally not considered a disability, a pregnant student may become temporarily disabled and thus entitled to the same rights and protections of other students with a temporary disability.”

The Department of Education said that clearly applied in this case.

Title IX also specifically mentions pregnancy, termination of pregnancy and childbirth as conditions that cannot be discriminated against. Absences due to those are supposed to be excused by a school. And students should be allowed to make up work.

In investigating the school, officials with the Department of Education found a lack of understanding that those provisions were included in law and no effort to enact them.

The school, they found, did not acknowledge pregnancy in its nondiscrimination statement, on its Title IX website, on its Disability Resource Center website, or in its policy for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which all schools are supposed to have.

The Title IX coordinator, whom investigators interviewed, didn’t seem to have knowledge of the requirements under the law either. And he failed to promptly respond to the student’s concerns.

They hone in on his failures, in particular, saying he did nothing to help the student as he should have.

Neither the Title IX office at SLCC or the Disability Resource Center engaged in an interactive process with the student to actually consider her case and what academic adjustments could be made, they conclude.

What she was asking for, they say, was reasonable for someone with a pregnancy-related illness.

Instead, she withdrew from the school and was refunded her tuition for that semester.

Moving forward with the findings of discrimination, the school faces several requirements, as well as continued federal monitoring to make sure it complies.

SLCC will be required to revise its nondiscrimination statement to include pregnancy. And it must detail a grievance process for students who feel they have been denied accommodations. It also will inform all students and staff on campus of those changes.

The college has also agreed, as part of a resolution to the case to avoid a lawsuit, to provide more training for its staff.

The school added in its statement that it is “committed to strengthening our processes to ensure that students are treated respectfully, with understanding, and when necessary, offered reasonable accommodations to help them succeed.”

And it will reinvestigate and respond to the student’s original concerns — with proper documentation of what occurred.