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Wrongful Death Lawsuits Could Create Problems in the Nation’s Universities

When students in mental distress at universities harm themselves or others, who is liable? What can and should universities do about students in mental distress? These questions have been in the spotlight ever since the shootings at Virginia Tech earlier this year, but the problem has been around much longer than that.

Since the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho had a well-documented and reported history of mental disturbance – a history that many now claim was dismissed by authorities – many are questioning whether the university could have done more to prevent the tragedy that eventually occurred at the school. Some have argued that universities tend to either ignore threats or overreact to them.

Some schools have faced wrongful death lawsuits filed by parents who have lost a child because of another student’s disturbed mental state. In response, some of these colleges and universities have implemented policies that automatically suspend those who seek psychiatric help. Some of the students suspended in this manner have successfully sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act or have sought action with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The balance between school liability, student safety, and human rights seems particularly sticky in these situations.

Although the Virginia Tech situation is utmost on everyone’s minds, it is far from the only case involving wrongful death suits and other sticky legal cases on college campuses. Another high-profile case involved Elizabeth Shin, a student at MIT. In April 2000, the woman set herself on fire in her dorm and succumbed to her burn injuries. It was the student’s second suicide attempt and reports indicated that Shin had told a dorm supervisor and two students about her suicide intentions. Her parents filed a $27-million wrongful death lawsuit in 2002, arguing that the school and various faculty were liable as they knew about Shin’s intentions but did not take adequate steps to prevent the tragedy.

According to the Jed Foundation, about 1,100 college students commit suicide each year. A survey of college counselling center directors in 2006 revealed that 92% of college counselling center directors feel that there has been an increase in the number of seriously mentally ill students. Some experts argue that the high stress of college life coupled with less outpatient treatment than might be available to students at home can lead to serious problems. Additionally, some disorders, such as bipolar disorder, tend to first appear in the late teens and early twenties, when students are often in college.

Some experts question how universities respond to students who are ill. George Washington University sophomore Jordan Nott was the subject of many headlines in 2004. In November of that year, Nott went to the university hospital after becoming frightened by his own thoughts. The university barred him from returning to his dorm room and forced him to withdraw from the school. Nott was told that if he did not withdraw from the school he could be subject to suspension, expulsion, and criminal charges. Nott filed a lawsuit against the university, which received widespread criticisms of its actions. Bluffton University, Woodbury University, DeSales University and several other schools have been reprimanded by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for their treatment of students with a mental disability. Some experts argue that schools that have such tough policies discourage students from seeking help, which can actually encourage more tragedy.