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.
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]
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.