Damned If You Do Department: Campus Suicides

by Ted Frank on May 30, 2006

We’ve previously noted that colleges, out of fear from liability over student suicides, have been taking extreme steps to preempt the problem by requiring medical leaves of absence. George Washington University discovered that avoiding suits from Scylla doesn’t mean that Charybdis won’t sue: Jordan Nott has sued the school after being barred from campus after seeking hospitalization for suicidal thoughts. Liability reform is clearly needed: either schools aren’t responsible for student suicides, or they aren’t responsible for the steps they take to prevent such suicides. (In the famous Elizabeth Shin/MIT case, the parties recently settled after a court ruling expanding schools’ liability in suicide cases, including the possible liability of administrators without mental health credentials.)

Amanda Schaffer, writing in Slate, argues for a middle ground—a program based on one at the University of Illinois intervening in the lives of suicidal students without kicking them off campus. But Schaffer doesn’t recognize that the middle ground doesn’t resolve liability issues, including hindsight-based lawsuits for the cases where the middle ground isn’t successful; even the Illinois program has reduced suicides by only half. Educational reform can’t happen without legal reform.

{ 2 comments }

1 David Wilson 05.30.06 at 4:42 pm

“Liability reform is clearly needed: either schools aren’t responsible for student suicides, or they aren’t responsible for the steps they take to prevent such suicides.”

The same could be said of too many other areas. New York City might find itself legally liable when police assert themselves at the Puerto Rican Day parade, or, if they don’t. All part of the legal culture’s refusal to recognize that things can happen without being a deep pocket’s fault. Besides putting a drag on the economy, the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t approach to law deepens public cynicism and undermines the rule of law itself. A law-abiding person faced with the prospect of sanction for every available action – including inaction – throws up his hands in exasperation. Why bother? A virtuous legal system ought to have some general coherence and even (gasp) general principles within the understanding of non-lawyers. But most perceive the legal system for what it has become: formalized opportunism for the shameless.

2 Deoxy 05.31.06 at 10:23 am

David Wilson,

I am officially stealing that quote, starting with “All part of”. That’s the problem in a nutshell, and so accurate that you may soon be receiving legal threats from lawyers.

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