Lesley University in Massachusetts was investigated by the Department of Justice for failing to abide with the Americans with Disabilities Act by providing reasonable accommodations in providing meals to students who had celiac disease and food allergies. Recently, the University settled the investigation by paying $50,000 to the students who filed the complaint in addition to making multiple concessions for accommodating students who have celiac disease in the future.
The summary of the agreement can be found here.
The text of the full settlement agreement can be found here.
The concessions in the agreement include requirements that Lesley University
– Continually provide ready-made hot and cold gluten- and allergen-free food options in its dining hall food lines;
– Develop individualized meal plans for students with food allergies, and allow those students to pre-order allergen free meals, that can be made available at the university’s dining halls in Cambridge and Boston;
– Provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare gluten-free and allergen-free foods and to avoid cross-contamination;
– Enable students to request food made without allergens, and ensure that a supply of allergen-free food is available;
– Work to retain vendors that accept students’ prepaid meal cards that offer food without allergens;
– Display notices concerning food allergies and identify foods containing specific allergens;
– Train food service and University staff about food allergy related issues; and
– Because the issues surrounding food allergies are “not static,” the University agrees to continue evaluating and revising the policies to remain in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
There are additional articles that comment on the settlement, such as those at National Public Radio and at Fox News. Some people believe that the settlement is overreaching because of the detail required. The agreement describes where on campus that food must be prepared and how the University must attempt to avoid cross-contamination of foods – including mandating separate counter areas, kitchen supplies, refrigerators, cabinet space, appliances, and food warmers for food prepared for food-allergic students. The students with food allergies also have a separate locked room in which they can dine to prevent cross-contamination from food served to other students.
There are several problems that the settlement doesn’t address.
How is the school supposed to control for contamination from one type of non-allergenic food to another? For example, how would the school prevent peanut butter on a gluten-free PB&J sandwich from coming into contact with the food on a peanut-allergic student’s tray in the same dedicated cabinet space or the same restricted dining room? Having separate appliances, supplies, cabinets, preparation areas, etc for each type of allergy certainly wouldn’t be “reasonable” under the ADA since the dozens of different food allergies and literally thousands of different food allergy combinations would require multiple separate facilities to truly prevent any cross-contamination.
Exempting the students from the meal plan may also not be a viable solution for this problem since many students have limited options for getting off campus to purchase allergen-free foods and have no place to store the foods even if they did.
The takehome point from this settlement for schools that receive federal funding is that they should take 504 discussions with students seriously. There was no description of what events led up to the complaint and federal investigation, but comments to the articles hinted that the university may have been dismissive of the students’ requests for accommodation. If this was the case, the University would have fared much better had it worked with the students to come up with a mutually acceptable solution to the students’ problems rather than enduring a federal investigation and settlement.
By entering into this settlement, the Department of Justice has now set what it considers to be the minimum standards for schools to meet the needs of students with celiac disease and food allergies. This settlement agreement will likely now be used as a guideline that other schools will need to follow in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act when dealing with students who have celiac disease or food allergies.