ERIC Number: EJ766032
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2007-Apr-20
Reference Count: N/A
Student Suicide and Colleges' Liability
Smith, Robert B.; Fleming, Dana L.
Chronicle of Higher Education, v53 n33 pB24 Apr 2007
Virginia recently became the first state to pass legislation that bars public colleges and universities from punishing or expelling students "solely for attempting to commit suicide, or seeking mental-health treatment for suicidal thoughts or behaviors." While well intentioned, the law adds nothing to current law and will, in fact, make a bad situation even worse. By suggesting that institutions could have a basic duty to prevent student suicide, it opens the door for more high-profile lawsuits and ensures that a complex societal problem will continue to be mismanaged. In student-suicide cases, colleges face liability on two fronts. First, an institution can be held liable if the court determines that it somehow caused the suicide. Second, a college can be held liable if the court finds that it formed a "special relationship" with the student, triggering a duty to prevent the student from committing suicide. Ironically, and sadly, the law puts colleges in a double bind. If they develop supportive mental-health policies, they risk costly and reputation-damaging litigation. If they do not, they risk students' lives. While there are no easy solutions to this problem, colleges can do better. For example, a more narrowly tailored emergency exception to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Ferpa) would permit disclosures about suicidal students to deans, residential administrators, and others. In addition, screening programs for the early identification of students with mental-health problems would allow colleges to focus their counseling resources on the most at-risk students. Requiring students to report mental illnesses as part of the application process, much like they report SAT scores and learning issues, would also permit colleges to marshal their resources and develop long-term treatment plans where appropriate.
Descriptors: Colleges, Legal Responsibility, Suicide, College Students, State Legislation, Court Litigation, Mental Disorders, Privacy
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Publication Type: Journal Articles; Opinion Papers
Education Level: Higher Education
Authoring Institution: N/A
Identifiers - Laws, Policies, & Programs: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act 1974