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How COVID Anxiety Makes Discipline Proceedings Even More Stressful for Students

In all of the discussion about the disruptive and damaging effects the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked on the nation’s students at colleges and universities, one facet often overlooked is the impact on students facing disciplinary proceedings or students who want to file a complaint with a school tribunal to obtain justice.

COVID anxiety clearly increases the stress level of students involved in the already stressful process of disciplinary action on campus. To find out why and how to address the problem, it is helpful to appreciate all the factors involved. Students and their parents also often find it beneficial to seek guidance and advice from attorneys experienced in student defense and advocacy.

Understanding COVID Anxiety

Even though COVID-19 restrictions have eased in most places, many students are finding it hard to return to “normal.” In fact, for some, the loosening of restrictions is creating even more angst because they are expected to be in close contact with others when they feel it is dangerous. In the time since the pandemic lockdowns began, those suffering from COVID anxiety syndrome often find their symptoms increasing rather than decreasing.

The Anxiety is a Separate Ailment

Many people confuse the harm posed by COVID-19 anxiety with the harm posed by contracting COVID-19 itself. They are two separate ailments. The risk of contracting or suffering serious harm from COVID has no bearing on the anxiety disorder and the damage that it inflicts.

COVID-19 anxiety syndrome has its own set of symptoms and effects. Indications are that some of these effects could be of indefinite duration, particularly if they are not addressed through professional treatment.

Manifestation of COVID-19 Anxiety Syndrome

Mental health experts are defining COVID anxiety to include obsessive distress and avoidance behaviors such as:

  • Checking for COVID symptoms compulsively
  • Cleaning and bleaching household and personal items for hours
  • Avoiding public transportation and other public spaces

Symptoms of COVID anxiety bear similarity to symptoms of other mental health disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Individuals suffering from COVID anxiety syndrome experience increased levels of overall stress, health anxiety, and sometimes even suicidal thought patterns.

Problems for Those with COVID-19 Anxiety

For those living with COVID anxiety, even regular daily tasks can become a challenge. They have trouble focusing on anything not related to the disease and often suffer from insomnia. Anxiety prevents them from accomplishing necessary tasks such as working or grocery shopping.

They isolate themselves from others and wallow in feelings of hopelessness and bitterness about the pandemic. These feelings can be reinforced by following news accounts that try to attract viewers by heavily emphasizing stories about new strains of the disease or potentially new pandemic diseases. Mental health professionals are also concerned that the fear tactics used by government entities to encourage compliance with lockdown requirements have encouraged the development of COVID anxiety syndrome in vulnerable individuals, particularly those with a low threshold for uncertainty.

The stress from COVID anxiety can trigger physical symptoms such as recurring headaches or stomach pains. For affected students, the mental and physical strain is compounded when they are facing the stress of potential disciplinary measures.

Adding to the Stress for COVID-Anxious Students

By their very nature, school discipline proceedings create stress in even the most carefree students. Whether they are respondents accused of a violation or complainants accusing someone else of wrongdoing, they are put in a position where every statement they make will be scrutinized in detail. Their veracity will be challenged, and they will need to defend their statements verbally in front of officials who hold considerable power over their future.

When a student who is avoiding public forums is forced to appear and represent their interests in a public meeting or hearing, the stress can easily tempt them to skip the proceeding, which can lead to an automatic finding against them. If they do manage to overcome their anxiety to make an appearance, their ability to represent their interests will be severely compromised, and they are not generally allowed to have an attorney or other representative appear on their behalf.

Even being forced to sit in a chair without being allowed to clean it first can be enough to trigger mental paralysis in a student suffering from COVID-19 anxiety disorder. It may be possible to have some concerns addressed through reasonable accommodation provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but without legal advice, many students are not aware that they could be entitled to accommodations.

Schools React to Health Needs with Discipline Instead of Treatment

Public health studies have shown that many schools with elevated levels of student depression and substance abuse also have higher levels of school disciplinary action. Students suffering from anxiety frequently self-medicate with alcohol or controlled substances to “forget” about their worries. While reasonable adults know that this conduct only makes problems worse, students still in the process of developing consequential reasoning skills don’t always make the connection or care about the result.

A student facing disciplinary measures for violations of alcohol or drug policies could be sending out red flags seeking help dealing with mental health issues. Instead of looking at ways to address the stress and anxiety that led to the violation, the school simply moves to an assessment of guilt and punishment, further enhancing the student’s desire for destructive behaviors.

COVID Measures Themselves Lead to Problems in Colleges

It is particularly painful for students suffering from COVID-19 anxiety when they face disciplinary proceedings stemming from alleged violations of school COVID policies. The lockdowns and restrictions caused colleges and universities to implement new policies and require students to rely on new technologies virtually overnight. Misunderstandings and the lack of information frequently gave rise to allegations of violations.

Distance Learning and Cheating Allegations

When classrooms went virtual, faculty concerns about plagiarism and other forms of cheating increased dramatically. This often led to allegations of online cheating that were based on misunderstandings of assignments and policies rather than dishonesty.

Students who did not feel comfortable returning to the classroom due to COVID anxiety are at an increased risk of being accused of online cheating. COVID anxiety also increases the effects of any disabilities such as difficulties with cognitive processing, and students with learning disabilities are often entitled to special accommodations, which could be treated as cheating by faculty who are unaware of a student’s needs. An experienced attorney can help to ensure that the student’s rights are protected and help enable the student to raise the most effective arguments in defense of any cheating allegations.

Allegations of COVID Policy Violations

COVID concerns prompted colleges and universities to adopt a wide range of policies ostensibly designed to protect student safety, but also with an eye toward protecting the institution from liability. Sometimes, these policies violate state and local laws. Students accused of COVID policy violations, such as not wearing a mask or hosting a gathering that violated restrictions, often have valid defenses they can raise, but they need to understand how to protect their rights while working within the framework of school procedures that may be modified due to COVID.

Violations Involving Vaccination Cards

With colleges requiring proof of vaccination for COVID-19 and many students worried about the unknown long-term effects of the vaccine, some students have tried to circumvent requirements. In fact, students facing a choice between vaccination and the inability to finish their education can be facing as much anxiety as students who are afraid of contracting COVID. 

Allegations of vaccination violations such as forged vaccination cards are surprisingly common on campus. In addition to the consequences that usually apply to violations of school conduct codes, forgery of a vaccination card can also be prosecuted as a federal criminal offense with penalties that include up to five years in prison. Crafting a plausible defense can be challenging in these situations, particularly in situations where school policies conflict with local laws or where a student’s health records are out of state and not easily available.

The Effect of COVID on the Investigation of Title IX and Other Violations

Students experiencing stress about COVID and stress about school disciplinary proceedings involving alleged Title IX violations or other conduct issues will have their anxiety compounded by the delays resulting from COVID restrictions. Investigation procedures may be suddenly changed by the school, proceedings take longer to investigate and resolve, and all students involved must wait longer in uncertainty. The one silver lining to the delay situation is that it gives both complainants and respondents more opportunities to work with their attorneys to collect and present evidence to support their cases.

Legal Advice and Counsel Helps Students Suffering from COVID Anxiety in Disciplinary Proceedings

Whether you are the respondent accused of a violation or the complainant trying to address wrongdoing, the prospect of a disciplinary proceeding can overwhelm you with worry. If you face anxiety about COVID or other issues, you may be entitled to accommodation to meet your needs.

As attorneys experienced in handling disciplinary matters, the team at Duffy Law, LLC can help you protect your rights and proceed with confidence, reducing your overall stress. Contact us today for a confidential consultation to learn more about how we can assist in your case.

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.