Suicide on Campus: The Appropriate Legal Responsibility of College Personnel
Ann MacLean Massie
Washington and Lee University - School of Law
Marquette Law Review, Vol. 91, Spring 2008
Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2007-19
Elizabeth Shin's self-immolation in her dormitory room at MIT in April 2000 was a shocking and visible reminder to the world of a recurrent problem: why do more than 1,000 of our most promising young people on campuses throughout the nation choose to end their lives each year? Most startling to parents and others who loved these young people is the discovery that very often, campus administrators, professors, and other personnel were well aware that these students were seriously suicidal: previous attempts, serious threats, and the pleas of friends for intervention are frequent clues. Yet when parents ask why they were not notified that their son or daughter was in serious emotional or psychological trouble, college administrators are likely to cite privacy laws and the adulthood age of 18 as reasons for not engaging outside family members. On the other hand, campuses sometimes react to suicidal suggestions from students in ways that seem harshly inappropriate, for example, by suspending or dismissing the student without providing any means of help: such was the well-publicized case of Jordan Nott at George Washington University. Both the Shin case and Jordan Nott's treatment resulted in lawsuits against the respective universities.
This article examines the dramatic increase in campus suicides over the past few decades and argues that where college personnel have actual knowledge that an undergraduate student is suicidal, they have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the student from self-harm, including, but not limited to, notifying the student's parents or guardian or reporting the information to an administrator who has authority to make such notification. Except in the most exigent circumstances, such notification would be sufficient to fulfill the duty. Notification of close family members would not only permit meaningful involvement on their part at a crucial point in their young person's life, it would also avoid the seeming indifference of suspension or dismissal. The notion of this duty is grounded in the doctrine of special relationship between the institution and the student, explicated in Restatement of Torts (Second) Sec. 314A and reiterated in the new Restatement of Torts (Third) Sec. 40. Federal privacy laws, which contain an emergency exception, are no barrier; Congress is considering an amendment to make this clear. Even if the family is part of the problem, there is evidence from the field of psychology that their early involvement in their student's treatment decisions is beneficial.
Supporting data for the perspective of this article arise from an examination of developmental psychology and brain development during late adolescence; emerging knowledge reveals that capacities for mature judgment and impulse control develop much later than was once thought. The paper also analyzes counter-arguments and proffers refutation based upon legal argumentation, psychology, and neuro-science.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 75
Keywords: Suicide on CampusAccepted Paper Series
Date posted: September 27, 2007
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