Students are increasingly demanding to bring a range of emotional support animals into their dorms, Jan Hoffman reports for the New York Times.
More students have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders and depression, which has led to a rising number of requests for permission to keep animals and—when colleges say no—a growing number of disability lawsuits, too.
In 2013, a federal judge ruled that campus residences fall under the Fair Housing Act, which requires institutions provide "reasonable accommodations" for residents with emotional support animals because of depression or other diagnosed health issues. And last month, the University of Nebraska at Kearney agreed to pay $140,000 to two students denied support animals in a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department—additionally, a federal judge recently declined to dismiss a similar lawsuit against Kent State University.
In light of the lawsuits, many universities are beginning accept more requests for pets ranging from dogs and cats to pigs, sugar gliders, and even tarantulas.
"Schools think it's easier to say yes than no because property damage is cheaper than litigation," says Michael Masinter, an expert on disability law at Nova Southeastern University.
But schools must also come up with ways to keep other students on campus—like those with phobias and allergies—safe.
"The disabilities services people are all looking at what they need to do to make this work," says Jane Jarrow, an educational disabilities consultant. "We're way past pretending it's not going to happen."
At St. Mary's College, that includes designating a specific set of washers and dryers for students with pets, in order to keep dander away from students with allergies. And at Western Washington University, it means feeding pet snakes frozen mice to accommodate the no "live feeds" policy.
Research on therapeutic animals' effectiveness is limited and long-term benefits have not been found by randomized control trials—but some schools don't mind the lack of scientific evidence.
"Having that animal has clearly helped to reduce stress and anxiety for some students, which helps them progress toward their degree," says Joanne Goldwater, associate dean of students and director of residence life at St. Mary's.
To bring more standards to the process, some schools choose to contact a student's medical provider to ensure he or she did not purchase a support animal certification from a "cybertherapist," who issue such documents for fees up to $150 after a video-chat session (Hoffman, New York Times, 10/5).
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