Laws Limit Options When a Student is Mentally Ill
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Universities can find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, they may be liable if they fail to prevent a suicide or murder. After the death in 2000 of Elizabeth H. Shin, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had written several suicide notes and used the university counseling service before setting herself on fire, the Massachusetts Superior Court allowed her parents, who had not been told of her deterioration, to sue administrators for $27.7 million. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
On the other hand, universities may be held liable if they do take action to remove a potentially suicidal student. In August, the City University of New York agreed to pay $65,000 to a student who sued after being barred from her dormitory room at Hunter College because she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
Also last year, George Washington University reached a confidential settlement in a case charging that it had violated antidiscrimination laws by suspending Jordan Nott, a student who had sought hospitalization for depression.
“This is a very, very difficult and gray area, when you take action to remove the student from the campus environment, versus when you encourage the student to use the resources available on campus,” said Ada Meloy, director of legal and regulatory affairs at the American Council on Education. “In an emergency, you can share certain information, but it’s not clear what’s an emergency.”
Universities are undoubtedly between a rock and a hard place. These situations almost always require a case-by-case response. I don't know that it is possible to enact restrictive laws or policies that will ever strike the right balance.
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