Case Tests Rights of Learning Disabled Entitlements for Students Clash with Academic Standards on Campus

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Boston University has long been a leader in helping students with learning disabilities earn their diplomas. Students who have trouble concentrating in class can have assistants take notes for them. Those who don't process information quickly get extra time on tests.

But two years ago, the university began to reevaluate these services, prompted by what the school says were faculty complaints. Learning-disabled students on the Gothic-spired campus objected, and BU is now embroiled in a lawsuit that could define how colleges across the US identify and serve such students.

At issue is whether students with special needs can get an equal education in America's most hallowed halls of learning. But the emotional case now unfolding in a federal courtroom in Boston also points to a broader issue - individual rights versus academic standards. "The larger issue is, exactly what are the rights and responsibilities of students compared with the rights of institutions to protect their academic integrity and academic standards?" says Salome Heyward of Heyward Lawton & Associates in Cambridge, Mass., which advises universities and businesses on complying with disability law. Take Elizabeth Guckenberger, a third-year BU law student. She was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder believed to impair reading ability, when she was a college freshman. When she started law school at BU in 1994, BU granted her a reduced course load, which means she will graduate in four years, rather than three. In addition, she takes exams in a quiet room and gets twice the time as other students. "I definitely need my accommodations to achieve the success that I'm able to," says Ms. Guckenberger, one of 10 students who sued the university in July 1996. But in 1995, BU told her she would need to be reevaluated - at an out-of-pocket cost of $800. Guckenberger still qualifies as learning-disabled under BU's new policies, but other students do not. "I jumped through all their hoops," she says, "but there were students who didn't who were denied accommodations." The students' suit charges that the university violates the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. Under the act, universities must provide "reasonable accommodations" for students with disabilities - including those with learning difficulties. The case is expected to settle several key issues: * What documentation colleges can require of a student to establish that he or she is learning disabled. * What accommodations they must provide. * Whether universities can refuse to allow any substitutions for academic requirements. "What, hopefully, this case will do is give the parties on both sides a sense of where the line is," says Ms. Heyward. More learning-disabled students The private liberal-arts university is not alone in reexamining how it serves students with disabilities. Cuts in state and federal funding are forcing other institutions to take a closer look at the programs they provide. …