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« College Justice, Where Are You? | Main | Fraternity pledge gone fatal »

The University is to Blame for My Child’s Death

Student suicide is a topic that needs further discussion considering suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Student suicide received national attention when universities made attempts at suicide prevention by placing physical barriers that close access to common suicide locations. The popularity of the Netflix show “Thirteen Reasons Why” also brought a lot of attention to the issue, so much so that universities made dedicated websites to address students’ concerns. A large factor for these high suicide rates are all the pressures college students face, both inside and outside of the classroom. Since college students often live on campus and are seen as members of the campus community, some feel that universities are to blame when students take their own life.

Historically, colleges have not been held responsible for the suicides of their students. For a college to be held liable for their student’s suicide, they need to have had a duty to prevent the suicide. For an organization, such as a college, to have a duty to prevent a suicide they need to have a “special relationship” with the student and have knowledge of the student’s suicidal tendencies. Colleges were not believed to have a “special relationship” with students since this was typically reserved for professionals, such as doctors and psychiatrists, who are directly involved in a person’s health. In Jain v. The State of Iowa and White v. University of Wyoming, the courts reaffirmed this notion when they found that colleges had no legal responsibility to prevent suicide since they are not viewed as healthcare providers. However, future court cases challenged what constitutes a “special relationship” between students and the schools they attend, which have created a dilemma for colleges.

In Schieszler v. Ferrum College the courts changed the finding that colleges do not have a duty to protect students from suicide when they ruled that Ferrum College was guilty of negligence in their student’s death. The school knew about the student’s mental health issues and did not do enough to provide care to the student. Shortly after this case, in Shin v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the school was placed in the same situation due to the knowledge the counseling service staff had of the student’s suicidal tendencies. The courts found that the counseling staff had a duty to protect the student, but the school decided to settle the case out of court instead of going to trial. These cases, among others, set a precedence that schools who have knowledge of a student’s likelihood to commit suicide can be held responsible if the student does take their own life.

Liability for student suicide puts schools in a tough situation when trying to formulate ways to prevent student suicides. Some colleges have policies that allow them to prevent students from attending school or living on campus to avoid the risk of having students commit suicide on campus noting that they are a danger to themselves or others. This type of policy can be difficult since dismissing students for suicidal behavior has been challenged in the courts as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Colleges could refer students to outside resources instead but this might make it more difficult for students to receive adequate help or make them less likely to pursue assistance. On the other hand, colleges might want to have a very active role and provide comprehensive services to students. In doing so, they then accept the responsibility of having a duty to protect the student. If the student does commit suicide, the college runs the risk of facing lawsuits for not protecting the student.

Should schools take a hands-on approach or leave severe mental health issues to outside services? There is no standard answer to this question but as suicide garners more national attention, hopefully school practices will get more attention and their efforts will find a happy medium.

This post was authored by Carlos Velez, a masters student in Higher Education Administration at The University of Texas at San Antonio and is an advisor at Northwest Vista College. 

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Reader Comments (11)

Student suicide is something that can be prevented with the help of counselors and psychologist but only if the student is already seeing someone for disability services or counseling. We can't help our students that don't look for help. It is hard to see the signs for suicide, it is not symptoms you can see like a common cold. Yet there are signs for help and out cry and I agree that we should put those students first and also offer as much assistance as possible. A suicidal student is not just an email you want to pass to faculty it is something you want to help with quickly,

April 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Redwine

Schools should promote the services they provide on campus. This should also be promoted by faculty, given that students face much stress within the classrooms. It shouldn't be promoted just at the beginning of the semester, but at various points throughout. However, it is still the student's responsibility to seek out the resources that they need.

April 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNelly Reyes

Suicide is horrible and represents one more sign of the United States growing mental health epidemic. This epidemic requires a relook at responsibility in trying to decide how this issue amongst many other issues can be resolved. I am actually by no means convinced that a student who of the mindset that they are going to commit suicide is actually responsible enough to get the help they need. It will take an array of people to help those most despondent.

April 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Richey

Handling suicidal individuals can be a tough situation. As a college housing administrative professional, I feel that the institution should not be held responsible for students who commit suicide. I have dealt with several student with mental health concerns (suicidal, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc.). Recently I had to evict a student from our housing complex due to his behavior (serious mental concern influenced his behavior). I had several meeting with counseling services, student code of conduct, and the campus police department. I found out that I was not the only person that was very concern about the students behavior, but other departments and faculty members were also aware of the student behavior.

Meeting with the student and monitoring his behavior had become overly demanding for all departments as his behavior began to impact the community. After further investigation the student was not taking his medication. The student was deemed a danger to himself and the community.

I said all that to say this, an institution can provide services to help prevent students from committing suicide, but the services will not guarantee that the student will follow through with the advice or instructions that are provided to them. Which cause them to be a liability to themselves and guardians should be notified once the student start showing symptoms of certain behaviors.

April 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTrenshae' Gilbert

There is a prevalent theme circling higher education communities: practicing self-care. The notion of self-care can be implemented formally with increased counseling / psychiatric services on campus, or informally such as repeatedly hosting "Stress Down Days" and other self-care projects. Having someone present with a student whom is afflicted with suicide tendencies can go a long way as to save the student.

It is the institution's responsibility to provide and intellectual and thriving environment for all types of students. As the red flags begin to appear, the institution cannot overlook and hope the student resolves his or her affliction alone. By placing resources on both the macro (increases counseling services, available counselors, etc.) and micro (trained Residential Assistants, self-care projects, etc.) levels, higher education institutions can begin to mitigate the student suicide epidemic.

April 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDeon Turner

This was a well written blog post and to comment on this, I would have to say that I think that colleges should have some sort of hand in helping students who have suicidal tendencies. In no way should they be acting in loco parentis, but if it is documented that a student has these tendencies, counseling services as well as residence halls should have a small duty to ensure that this student safe from time to time. It can be decided between the counseling office, student, and residence halls on when these "check-ups" could be just to make sure the student is doing okay. If the student verbally expresses that they are not okay, then the residence halls and the college can then make sure they are receiving the proper care. I feel it is strange that we are paying thousands of dollars to a public institution but this public institution only does the bare minimum of just providing counseling services. I feel if we are dedicated to our students as much as vision and mission statements say they are then we should have least have the duty to ensure that we use every possible resource there is. I agree there should be a happy medium. I've talked to students myself who were considered on the ledge and since I could only do so much, I guided them to counseling services where they did find that help, but not everyone is as lucky. We want to make sure that these students feel comfortable in asking for help.

April 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos Villarreal

Suicide is becoming more of an issue in higher education and K-12.  The issue of responsibility is a hot topic, but it can also hide the demands so many students have regarding their mental health.  While I agree it is important to talk about what else educators can do to prevent suicide, educators are not trained mental health providers (though many of them seek out this training to better support students). I wonder what other kind of services and support can be offered to students.  And with continuous funding cuts, I wonder how we could bring funding into this issue.  One of the quotes I try to remind myself of is, "Don't find fault, find a remedy".  If discussing who is responsible for suicide can prevent future events, then let's keep the discussion going, but let's also figure out some other changes to address the larger mental health issues that are on the rise in today's students. 

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Severance

This is an interesting blog. I feel we should not hold the colleges responsible for student suicides. We would not blame parents for their child's suicide so why blame the institutions; However, I do believe there should be counseling services on campus which students could utilize if needed. It should also be allowed for family, friends, faculty, or staff to call the counseling services if they are concerned.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Sherwood

This is a very tough topic for me. Because I was a resident assistant I was put through special training's and knew exactly sat on our emergency awareness board along with how to reach them. This is not always public knowledge on a college campus. With that in mind I do not feel like most college campuses are fulfilling their duty to students. I would love to see people coming to talk to students in informal setting about the signs of suicide and who to reach out to. I do think colleges need to reach out to outside sources for help. Publicize the fact that you have counselors on campus. Let students know that they can go to these counselors for anything. I never see the counselors on campus and if I did I wouldn't know who they were because they are not a known or familiar face.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTarecka Payne

This is sad that it takes for a student to commit suicide for higher education and K-12 to get motivated to do something. Suicide being the second leading cause of death for a college student is disturbing. Why are we not thinking of something to help stop this? Our counseling services do a lot and sometime referring their students to another counseling center just won't cut it. I still don't think schools should be liable for student's suicide, but we should come together on finding a solution to help our students on what they are facing. Whether it is having a speaker come in and talk about suicide or even having our staff on campus attend professional developments on becoming aware of signs of suicide. We must work together as a higher education community to stop this.

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterApril Vasquez

It is a real struggle when thinking who is responsible for a students taking their own life. Every case is unique and with every suicide not everyone knows the full story or full reasoning. The only person who does its the one who took the action of taking their own life. Universities can be placed in a hard situation because what if a students knows the right words to say during a counseling session to get everyone off their back, when in reality they may be simply getting worse behind closed doors. The reason I bring this situation up, it because it happened to a friend of mind. A friend was in her graduate program where they had counseling sessions and shadowed a professional counselor in a hospital setting. She watched this child seemingly grow through her therapy sessions. She saw her week after week evolve, improve, and everyone thought she was finally having large strides and breakthroughs. However, on week she didn't return. My friend was devastated because she found out that patient had taken her life once she was released from the hospital. Its hard for us to point the finger at someone when someone thinks progress is being made. Again, no one really knows all that is going into the victim's head, except for themselves.

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Moya

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