The University is to Blame for My Child’s Death
Monday, April 16, 2018 at 11:33AM
David H.K. Nguyen

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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