Do colleges have a duty to try to prevent suicides?
NEW YORK (AP) -- A depressed Hunter College student who swallowed handfuls of Tylenol, then saved her own life by calling 911, was in for a surprise when she returned to her dorm room after the ordeal.
The lock had been changed.
She was being expelled from the dorm, the school informed her, because she violated her housing contract by attempting suicide. The 19-year-old was allowed to retrieve her belongings as a security guard stood watch.
Policies barring potentially suicidal students from dorms have popped up across the country in recent years as colleges have struggled to deal with an estimated 1,100 suicides a year. But some of those rules have come under legal attack.
Hunter College announced last month that it was abandoning its 3-year-old suicide policy as part of a settlement with the student. The student, who was allowed to continue attending class, claimed in a lawsuit that her 2004 ouster from the dorms violated federal law protecting disabled people from discrimination.
The school, part of the City University of New York system, also agreed to pay her $65,000.
Hunter spokeswoman Meredith Halpern said the college may still consider temporarily removing troubled students from its residence halls, but such evictions will no longer be automatic.
College officials say such expulsions are not punitive; Halpern said Hunter's policy was aimed at protecting students' privacy and shielding them from schoolmates' prying eyes. At George Washington University in the nation's capital, spokeswoman Tracy Schario said the idea is to give suicidal students a break from the stresses of university life and encourage them to seek help.
But some activists suspect such evictions are an attempt by colleges to avoid legal liability if someone commits suicide in the dorms.
How it was
Up until recently, the prevailing legal theory had long been that adult students were responsible for their own behavior, and that colleges could not be held liable. But that philosophy was undermined by a pair of court rulings involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ferrum College in Virginia.
In both cases, judges ruled before out-of-court settlements that colleges might have a duty to prevent a suicide if the risk was foreseeable. The cases prompted some schools to be more aggressive about sending troubled students home.
Karen Bower, an attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, which helped litigate the Hunter College case, said she hopes the settlement will prompt other schools to rethink their policies.
"The real danger of these policies is that they discourage students from getting the help that they really need," Bower said. Students might be scared from speaking out about suicidal thoughts if they believe it would mean eviction, she said.
The chances that a student might be expelled from a dorm simply for talking about suicide with a counselor are considered slim. Conversations with mental health professionals are generally confidential and protected by privacy laws.
But universities can hear about a student's troubles and take action if he has been talking with friends or classmates, or does something that leads to a middle-of-the-night hospitalization, which might involve campus security or a housing official.
Subject of lawsuit
Elsewhere around the country, George Washington University is being sued by a former student who was barred from campus and threatened with expulsion after checking himself into a hospital for depression. The student, Jordan Nott, said he never tried to kill himself but had been thinking about it because of the suicide of a close friend, also a George Washington student.
The Bazelon Center is also representing a student at a Connecticut boarding school who was placed on a mandatory leave after seeking treatment for depression.
George Washington's Schario said the school's treatment of Nott was not an attempt to limit legal liability, but "to protect a life." She added that Nott's case was an unusual one. More than 200 students seek help for depression or suicidal thoughts each year at George Washington, and a majority are not asked to leave.
"It is always a case-by-case assessment of what is best for that particular student," Schario said.
She acknowledged, however, that the university's current practice of using its disciplinary system to handle some students with psychological problems "does appear insensitive" and said other procedures were being considered.
Joanna Locke of the Jed Foundation, a program aimed at preventing college suicides, said schools should have flexibility. Some schools, she said, may feel a need to send a student home if they cannot offer proper treatment, or if the student has become disruptive.
"There is no right answer, except that [the decision] should be made carefully, and the decision should be made kindly," she said.
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