Privacy vs. Protection ; How Much Should a College Tell Parents When a Student's Health or Safety Seems at Risk?

Article excerpt

When parents send children off to college, many assume the school will quite naturally notify them if their young student becomes seriously ill or gets into disciplinary, academic, or other acute trouble.

It may be an understandable assumption, since parents are often paying the tuition bills - but it is usually quite wrong.

Most universities and colleges in the United States today will not automatically call a parent when crises arise, campus observers say. While it may seem like common sense to call home, students on most campuses are considered adults whose privacy on medical, disciplinary, and academic matters is sacrosanct.

That's what Cho Hyun Shin and Kisuk Shin say they discovered. The Shins' daughter, Elizabeth, attempted suicide April 10, 2000, in her dorm room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. She died four days later.

Elizabeth had been distraught off and on for months and received medical treatment and counseling from the school after repeated threats to kill herself. Her parents, however, say they were never told by MIT of her threats or made aware of her fragile mental condition.

So last month the couple filed a $27 million wrongful-death suit, charging negligence by MIT, based, in part, on lack of notification, their lawyer says. The school has issued a statement calling Shin's death a "tragedy" and denying those allegations.

It's rare for a lawsuit to be filed in a suicide case. Establishing a custodial relationship is often key to winning, and with the demise of in loco parentis - the legal standard by which schools stood in the place of the parent - in the 1960s, that relationship is difficult to prove.

But the Shin-MIT legal battle highlights a shift in American higher education: Cracks are appearing in the wall of strict confidentiality most colleges maintain.

Under pressure from litigious, often hyperattentive parents and emboldened by recently relaxed federal privacy laws, scores of colleges and universities are choosing to share rather than closet their knowledge of students' problems.

"We're seeing a national increase in parental notification," says Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Student Personnel Administrators in Higher Education. "There's a shift in the philosophy of the relationship between institutions and students and the involvement of the parent. Notification is part of that."

The past five years have seen growing parental pressure to be informed about their children, he says. Driving that trend have been high-profile campus crimes and wider access to crime data.

Some see college consumerism at work, too.

"When tuitions reach $30,000, the number of parental interactions increases dramatically," Mr. Kruger says. "A lot of student-life people and college presidents at elite schools tell me they are spending more time than ever before with parents."

Yet the fact that parental notification is not routine still shocks many parents.

A father's mission

Jeffrey Levy's eyes were opened in 1997 by what he found out after his son had been killed in a car crash. His son had been drunk when he climbed into the back seat of a car driven by another drunken college student. What amazed Mr. Levy, he says, is that the school knew his son had several alcohol violations but had never told him.

Since then, he has traveled the nation banging the drum for more and better parental notification.

"The majority of colleges just don't want to get into this business of notifying parents," he says. "Slowly they're starting to come around because we're putting a focus on it."

A few colleges are now adopting written parental-notification policies, he notes. Some are even doing a good job following them. But most schools are still following strictures that no longer have a strong legal foundation - if they ever did, he says. …

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