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The Emerging Crisis of College Student Suicide: Law and Policy Responses to Serious Forms of Self-Inflicted Injury

33 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2008  

Peter F. Lake

Stetson University College of Law


The number-one student risk factor in the minds of most college administrators now is alcohol use, and to a certain extent, the use of other drugs. Alcohol has been a risk factor in a number of prominent student deaths, including the untimely death of Scott Krueger at MIT. Alcohol is heavily associated with secondary risks, such as sexual assault and student riots over changes in alcohol policies. High-risk alcohol use is also a major factor in self-inflicted injury. The Authors anticipate that in the near term, however, attention paid to suicide and other serious forms of self-inflicted injury will continue to increase and that these concerns may begin to gain prominence.

The American legal system has been reluctant to hold institutions liable for suicide or self-inflicted injury. Traditionally, an individual who committed suicide was thought to be the sole proximate cause of injury; therefore, other entities were not responsible for the suicide. These traditional legal rules translated into substantial protection for colleges and institutions of higher education with respect to suicide and self-inflicted injury. Such legal protection has created the reality that many institutions have not placed high priority on these issues. The Authors describe various factors that could begin to erode legal protections of colleges regarding student suicide. Many of these factors are already evident in the case law and in noncollege cases. The Authors offer a law-and-policy vision of appropriate college responses to student suicide and self-inflicted injury based in large measure on the facilitator model first put forth by Professors Bickel and Lake in their book, The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University: Who Assumes the Risks of College Life? The Authors recognize that universities are not in a position to place the general student population in custodial control sufficient to prevent suicide. A need to do so would undermine the very nature of the academy. Colleges cannot be bystanders, however, to this major social issue, which promises to become a major form of risk to manage in college communities. The college of the future will strive to create a reasonably safe learning environment supportive of individuals with mental-health issues and will be prepared to take reasonable steps to protect the physical safety of those and other individuals.

Keywords: suicide, college, university, risk management, rights and responsibilities, self-inflicted injury, proximate cause, special relationship, krueger, tort liability, no duty, reasonably safe learning environment, alcohol and other drugs, high-risk alcohol, wellness

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K13

Suggested Citation

Lake, Peter F., The Emerging Crisis of College Student Suicide: Law and Policy Responses to Serious Forms of Self-Inflicted Injury. Stetson Law Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2002. Available at SSRN:

Peter F. Lake (Contact Author)

Stetson University College of Law ( email )

1401 61st St. South
Gulfport, FL 33707
United States

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