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student suicide

“Suit claims Princeton violated rights of suicidal student by pressuring him to leave” [ABA Journal] Earlier on the direct issue here, here, and here, and more broadly here.

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The internet has lit up with the story of the 20-year-old, 92-lb. history major who says she’s been battling the Yale administration over its pressure on her to eat more. [New Haven Register]. Although much of the press coverage seems unaware of the issue, it would not be surprising if changing legal pressures on universities played a role here. Efforts both regulatory and liability-driven have been under way to hold universities accountable for not preventing student suicides, and as a result, many campuses have seen a shift toward more interventionist, rules-driven policies designed to show that the institution was not standing idly by when it knew or had reason to know of early signs of self-harm. (Our file on the topic goes back a decade.) If the list of self-harm behaviors includes eating disorders, you might have a formula for interventions in which very skinny students are placed under pressure to prove they are not anorexic. Evaluating cases like the current one, of course, is difficult for outsiders because of HIPAA and other privacy laws which broadly prohibit the sharing of health-related information, even on topics of public concern.

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Education roundup

by Walter Olson on May 9, 2012

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“A federal judge Tuesday okayed a lawsuit claiming the City of Ithaca and Cornell University are liable for the 2010 death of a student.” The father of Bradley Marc Ginsburg “alleges the defendants did not do enough to prevent suicides from the [Thurston Avenue] bridge.” [Ithaca Independent]

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“See if you can figure out how the shock and sorrow of the young girl’s death got processed into criminal charges against 9 teenagers and whether this reaction is helpful or just.” [Ann Althouse]

More: there’s not enough in the article to reach conclusions either way, says Scott Greenfield.

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January 5 roundup

by Walter Olson on January 5, 2010

  • Other motorist in fatal crash should have been detained after earlier traffic stop, says widow in suit against Kane County, Ill. sheriff’s office [Chicago Tribune]
  • Now with flashing graphic: recap of Demi Moore skinny-thigh Photoshop nastygram flap [Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing, Kennerly]
  • Blawg Review #245 is hosted by Charon QC;
  • Expensive, unproven, and soon on your insurance bill? State lawmakers mull mandate for autism therapy coverage [KY3.com, Springfield, Missouri]
  • “NBC airs segment on Ford settlement: Lawyers get $25 million, plaintiffs get a coupon” [NJLRA]
  • “Drawing on emotion”: high-profile patent plaintiff’s lawyer Niro writes book on how to win trials [Legal Blog Watch]
  • “Virginia Tech faces lawsuit over student’s suicide” [AP/WaPo]
  • Maryland lawmaker’s Howard-Dean-style candor: “you take care of your base… It’s labor and trial lawyers that get Democrats in office” [Wood, ShopFloor]

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It’s in part a pre-emptive defensive gesture by universities anxious not to get sued after suicides, which doesn’t make it a good idea. [Sally Satel, Minding the Campus]

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“The family of a Sycamore High student who hanged herself after nude pictures she took on her cell phone were disseminated without her permission is suing the school, the city of Montgomery and several students they believe are involved.” [Cincinnati Enquirer] Jessica Logan was 18 and on spring break at the time. Patrick at Popehat, and earlier Scott Greenfield, have some relevant things to say about both the civil and criminal law angles of the problem.

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WashingtonPost.com’s “Think Tank Town” feature has a symposium on the policy implications of the Virginia Tech massacre, including contributions from Ted on fear of litigation and from me on the legal constraints on universities faced with problem students, as well as from Jim Copland (Point of Law, Manhattan Institute) on gun control.

This morning’s New York Times (Apr. 19) includes a must-read article by Tamar Lewin spelling out in more detail the problems I refer to in my short commentary. Writes Lewin:

Federal privacy and antidiscrimination laws restrict how universities can deal with students who have mental health problems.

For the most part, universities cannot tell parents about their children’s problems without the student’s consent. They cannot release any information in a student’s medical record without consent. And they cannot put students on involuntary medical leave, just because they develop a serious mental illness….

Universities can find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, they may be liable if they fail to prevent a suicide or murder. After the death in 2000 of Elizabeth H. Shin, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had written several suicide notes and used the university counseling service before setting herself on fire, the Massachusetts Superior Court allowed her parents, who had not been told of her deterioration, to sue administrators for $27.7 million. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

On the other hand, universities may be held liable if they do take action to remove a potentially suicidal student. In August, the City University of New York agreed to pay $65,000 to a student who sued after being barred from her dormitory room at Hunter College because she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt.

Also last year, George Washington University reached a confidential settlement in a case charging that it had violated antidiscrimination laws by suspending Jordan Nott, a student who had sought hospitalization for depression….

Last month, Virginia passed a law, the first in the nation, prohibiting public colleges and universities from expelling or punishing students solely for attempting suicide or seeking mental-health treatment for suicidal thoughts.

The article also refers to the role of the Buckley Amendment (FERPA), the HIPAA medical-privacy law, and disabled-rights law, which prohibits universities from inquiring of applicants whether they suffer serious mental illness or have been prescribed psychotropic drugs. Incidentally, the Allegheny College case, in which a Pennsylvania college came under fire for not notifying parents about their son’s suicidal thoughts, was discussed in a W$J article last month: Elizabeth Bernstein, “After a Suicide, Privacy on Trial”, Mar. 24. And Mary Johnson suspects that HIPAA will turn out to have played a role in the calamitous dropping of the ball regarding Cho’s behavior (Apr. 18). More: Raja Mishra and Marcella Bombardieri, “School says its options were few despite his troubling behavior”, Boston Globe, Apr. 19; Ribstein.

And: How well did privacy laws/policies work? Why, just perfectly:

Ms. Norris, who taught Mr. Cho in a 10-student creative writing workshop last fall, was disturbed enough by his writings that she contacted the associate dean of students, Mary Ann Lewis. Ms. Norris said the faculty was instructed to report problem students to Ms. Lewis.

“You go to her to find out if there are any other complaints about a student,” Ms. Norris said, adding that Ms. Lewis had said she had no record of any problem with Mr. Cho despite his long and troubled history at the university.

“I do not know why she would not have that information,” she said. “I just know that she did not have it.”

(Shaila Dewan and Marc Santora, “University Says It Wasn’t Involved in Gunman’s Treatment”, New York Times, Apr. 19). And Barbara Oakley, a professor at Oakland University in Michigan, has an op-ed in today’s Times, recounting her experience with a disturbing student: “It must have seemed far more likely that Rick could sue for being thrown out of school, than that I — or anyone else — could ever be hurt.” (“The Killer in the Lecture Hall”, Apr. 19). The tease-quote from the Times’s editors: “Do universities fear lawsuits more than violent students?”

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March 26 roundup

by Ted Frank on March 26, 2007

  • More fen-phen scandals: Possible smoking-gun email in Kentucky case (see Walter’s post today) came from Chesley firm computer; Vicksburg lawyer first attorney convicted in Mississippi fen-phen scam. [Courier-Journal via Lattman; Clarion-Ledger (h/t S.B.)] (Updated with correct Courier-Journal link.)
  • Allegheny College found not liable by jury for student’s suicide; school raised issue of student privacy concerns. Earlier on OL: May 30; Dec. 7, 2004. [WSJ]
  • Update on the tempered glass versus laminated issue earlier discussed in Overlawyered (Feb. 15, 2006; May 16, 2005; May 13, 2005, etc.) [LA Times]
  • Massachusetts court rejects quack sudden acceleration theory. (See also Dec. 20, Aug. 7, etc.) [Prince]
  • California bill would bar carpenters from school campuses. [Overcriminalized]
  • New book: Antitrust Consent Decrees in Theory and Practice [Richard Epstein @ AEI]
  • To be fair, I went to school with “young Mr Sussman, the boyish charmer”, and I don’t know how to pronounce “calumnies” either—it’s one of those words I’ve only seen written, and never heard spoken [Steyn; MSNBC]

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.

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