The US Department of Justice has reached an agreement with Lesley University that requires the school to “continually provide” gluten-free dining options to students, to ensure compliance with a federal law that protects people with disabilities, authorities said.
Among the settlement’s terms, Lesley has also agreed to provide a space in its main dining hall to prepare and store gluten- and allergen-free foods and to pay a combined $50,000 in damages to a group of students who have celiac disease or other conditions, the Justice Department said.
“By implementing this agreement, Lesley University will ensure students with celiac disease and other [conditions] can obtain safe and nutritional food options,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, in a recent statement.
According to the agreement, which was reached last month, the department received a complaint in 2009 that Lesley had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, because students who had celiac disease and other issues could not “fully and equally enjoy” the dining services.
People with celiac disease suffer intestinal damage if they consume food products that contain gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats, according to the National Library of Medicine. The damage can cause a variety of health problems including abdominal pain, diarrhea, and unexplained weight loss.
“If somebody has this, then they really need to be pretty strict” about what they eat, said Dr. Jacqueline Wolf, a physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a member of the hospital’s Celiac Center.
She said that a former patient who was studying at another college worked with the school’s health services staff to ensure that she had the proper accommodations.
“There were a lot of people who came up to her and thanked her for doing that,” Wolf said.
The government investigated Lesley and alleged that it did not comply with federal law, according to the agreement.
“The university maintains that it has taken and will continue to take positive, good faith steps to make reasonable modifications to its food service policies, practices, and procedures and to work with students on a case-by-case basis to address the needs of individual students with food allergies,” the agreement stated.
The Justice Department did not respond to an inquiry asking how many students initially complained about the dining services.
MaryPat Lohse, a senior Lesley official, said in an e-mail that only one student is believed to have filed the complaint, even though a number of people are entitled to a share of the cash award. She declined to elaborate, citing privacy reasons.
She added that most of the dining hall changes outlined in the agreement have already been made and that the university in Cambridge is working to meet the remaining provisions.
According to the agreement, Lesley does not admit that it violated federal law.
Thomas Murphy, senior attorney with the Disability Law Center, a statewide advocacy group, said he is not aware of similar settlements involving college dining services, though elementary and secondary schools have reached such agreements.
He said that the Lesley case “certainly could have wide-ranging implications” for area universities and that schools should read the accord to ensure their dining services are compliant. “All students at other schools have the same rights as the students at Lesley,” Murphy said.