Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Will Courts Make Student Suicide a NIMBY Problem for Colleges and Universities?: Dzung Duy Nguyen V. MIT and Impossible Standards for Higher Education Professionals

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Will Courts Make Student Suicide a NIMBY Problem for Colleges and Universities?: Dzung Duy Nguyen V. MIT and Impossible Standards for Higher Education Professionals

Article excerpt


Imagine a college sophomore; we can call her Lauren if it helps.1 Perhaps she plays soccer and studies political science. Perhaps she plays the clarinet and studies art history. Perhaps she plays beer pong and studies very little at all. Those details are immaterial.

Like many other college students, Lauren struggles to balance coursework, extracurricular activities, and a part time job. She meets with her academic advisor to discuss a failing grade and tells the advisor she thinks time management is hurting her performance-she gets so anxious that every assignment takes too long and she can never seem to catch up. The advisor refers Lauren to the on-campus counseling center for help managing her anxiety. Lauren confides that she saw a counselor in high school after a half-hearted suicide attempt with some over-the- counter pills, but did not find it helpful, and asks instead for information about academic support services.

Over the next few months, Lauren makes steady progress. One Friday evening, however, a student calls the institution's Department of Public Safety: he was walking across campus and saw a female student sitting on the ledge of an open window in one of the high-rise residence halls, her legs dangling over the edge. Public safety responds and Lauren answers to their knock. She denies that she was planning to jump but permits herself to be escorted to the counseling center.

The on-call psychologist meets with Lauren, administers a suicide risk assessment, and determines that Lauren is not suicidal. Lauren agrees to come in for an appointment the next Monday afternoon, and is walked back to her residence hall by the public safety officers, emergency on-call number in hand.

The next Monday morning, the on-call psychologist briefs the counseling center director on what happened the previous Friday night. The counseling center director contacts the dean of students. The dean of students contacts the head of public safety and the director of residential living. A meeting is convened that afternoon, which counsel attends. Decisions must be reached.

Questions pour out. How sure could the on-call psychologist be that Lauren was not suicidal? What if she jumped? Would she be better off at home, close to her family and away from sources of stress? If so, should Lauren be asked to go home? If she refused, should she be suspended and sent home for her own good? Does that sound punitive? Could she instead be required to take a medical leave? Should her parents be contacted? What if contacting her parents made her condition worse and she jumped?

They drill down to the details. If Lauren needs to leave campus, what is the best way to get her home? If she would be better off on campus, how can risk-to Lauren, to her classmates, to the school-be mitigated? Who makes the decision? How should it be communicated? If they decide wrong, would the school-or any individuals-be liable?

Conversations like these take place every term in conference rooms at colleges and universities across the country. Institutions of every stripe report having students placed on medical leave or hospitalized for psychological reasons, either voluntarily or involuntarily.2

The number of such incidents far outstrips the number of attempted or completed suicides, illustrating the principle, discussed in detail infra, that not every student with a mental health condition will commit suicide, and that it can be challenging even for a clinician to ascertain which students will ultimately do so. But, the number of completed suicides is still alarming. It is estimated that approximately 1,100 university students die by suicide ever year,3 and suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals aged fifteen to twenty-four.4

Sometimes it is clear what is best for the student in need, and the student's choices are aligned with the judgment of the student's family and/or other support systems, medical or mental health professionals, and the student's educational institution. …

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