Juhi Kaveeshvar, Kicking the Rock & the Hard Place to the Curb: an Alternative and Integrated Approach to Suicidal Students in Higher Education

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
Publication year2008
CitationVol. 57 No. 3



In the early morning hours of October 27, 2004, Jordan Nott found himself unable to sleep.1He was wrapped up in thoughts about a close friend who recently committed suicide by jumping out of his dormitory window.2Having taken a prescription drug that he knew could cause suicidal thoughts, Nott asked his college roommate to accompany him to the university hospital.3

Twelve hours after his hospital visit, he received a letter informing him that the university had evicted him from his dormitory room;4thirty-six hours later, the university mandated that he withdraw from the school or face suspension, expulsion, or criminal charges for violating the code of student conduct.5

Additionally, the university warned him to stay away from campus and threatened to arrest him as a trespasser if he attempted to return.6

Nott said the university's actions felt "like a stab in the back"7and "a huge slap in the face."8To him, it felt as though the school wanted to "wipe [its] hands clean" of him.9Nott's experience led him to sue the university.10In

November 2006, two years after the incident, the university settled the lawsuit,11with the provost stating, "While we recognize that some steps in the process may not have been perfect, we stand by the result."12

Across the country, an increasing number of colleges and universities are implementing policies similar to The George Washington University's policy described above13and, in turn, are facing formal complaints and litigation from affected students.14Suicide is a leading cause of death for college students, second only to automobile accidents.15Student suicides are not a new phenomenon,16but university responses such as eviction and policies that mandate the student's withdrawal from school are certainly a recent and growing trend.17While university officials claim that they have implemented the policies with students' best interests in mind,18critics believe that the true motivation stems from two recent court cases.19

In the closely watched Shin v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology20and

Schieszler v. Ferrum College,21courts considered whether universities and their administrators could be held liable for the suicides of two enrolled students who lived in campus housing.22While the parties in both cases eventually settled,23in pre-settlement rulings, both judges rejected the universities' assertions that they owed no duty to the deceased student24and stated that the universities' liability turned on the issue of foreseeability.25

Unfortunately for school officials who awaited a final decision in the cases,26the fact that these cases settled left unanswered the question of whether universities and their administrators owe a duty to their students.27Fearing liability, negative publicity, and multi-million-dollar lawsuits,28many universities have developed mandatory-leave policies similar to the one in place at The George Washington University.29

This Comment discusses the seemingly difficult position in which university administrators find themselves: one the one hand, if universities respect students' privacy and treat them as adults, they open themselves up to lawsuits based on wrongful death and negligence; on the other hand, if they implement mandatory withdrawal policies or force students to vacate campus housing, they risk violating federal statutes and the Constitution.30As an alternative to these options, this Comment proposes a collaborative approach that avoids liability for universities, but not at the cost of students' health and safety. This integrated approach necessitates that courts, legislatures, and universities take unified and complementary actions in combating the student suicide epidemic.

Part I discusses the split in the case law regarding special relationships, the duty that universities owe to their students, and universities' risk of tort liability. Additionally, it explains the economic reasons behind why administrators often prefer mandatory withdrawal and eviction as a response to suicidal students. Part II examines the [suicide-response?] policies currently in place at colleges across the United States and the legal liabilities associated with each. Part III puts forth the solutions already offered by academics and then explains why a collaborative approach addresses the problem more effectively than a solution that focuses solely on courts, legislatures, or universities. Part IV discusses the various avenues through which legislatures and courts can effect changes-legislatures by implementing new laws and courts by establishing appropriate standards of liability for universities and administrators. Finally, Part V proposes an approach that all universities should adopt to achieve socially desirable policies toward suicidal students while simultaneously avoiding legal liability.


A. Legal Principles and "Special Relationships"

In the development of American tort law, common law rules did not recognize an affirmative duty of care between universities and their adult students absent a showing of a special relationship.31Additionally, the traditional rule was that suicide constituted a "deliberate, intentional and intervening act that preclude[d] another's responsibility for the harm."32

However, the law has slowly developed two exceptions to the traditional rule. The first exception is where the individual or entity actually caused the suicide.33The second exception applies when the individual or entity had a duty to prevent the suicide.34Cases in the educational context continue to promote the principle that suicide constitutes an intentional and intervening act35because "[s]tudents are expected to shoulder the stresses and burdens of the transition into the college environment, even if those burdens are very high."36In Jain v. State, for example, a first-year student at the University of Iowa asphyxiated himself by leaving his moped running in his locked room.37

The trial court granted the university's motion for summary judgment,38and the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the ruling because it found that the university neither increased the likelihood that the student would commit suicide nor led him to stop looking for help elsewhere.39The Jain court also affirmed the general principle that suicide is a superseding, intervening act that cuts off any possible third-party liability.40Because the court determined that no special relationship existed between the university and the student, it did not allow for an exception to that principle.41

Unfortunately for administrators of educational institutions, the pre- settlement rulings in Shin42and Schieszler43have muddled the liability landscape. In Schieszler, a student hung himself in his dormitory room after writing letters to friends indicating that he was depressed and thinking of committing suicide.44The district court found that the plaintiff offered enough evidence to establish the existence of a special relationship because the university, the Dean of Student Affairs, and the Dormitory Resident Advisor knew of the student's problems.45Additionally, the court held that the university and the dean breached this duty.46Hence, liability would have turned on proximate cause and foreseeability.47The parties came to a settlement agreement in 2003, before the trial was to commence.48

College administrators subsequently kept a close eye on Shin.49Elizabeth Shin first experienced psychiatric health problems during the spring semester of her first year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).50Over the next twelve months, several MIT psychiatrists and physicians, Deans of

Counseling and Support Services, MIT professors, and a dormitory housemaster observed Shin's suicidal tendencies and worrisome behavior.51

On April 10, 2000, MIT Campus Police found Shin in her dormitory room with her "clothing engulfed in flames."52Her parents terminated her life support four days later.53When her parents sued MIT and its administrators for wrongful death and negligence, the defendants moved for summary judgment.54While the court granted summary judgment for MIT, it denied summary judgment for the administrators55because it found the existence of a special relationship between the administrators and Shin.56The court found

Shin's suicide reasonably foreseeable.57Therefore, the court concluded that the administrators had a duty to protect Shin from harm.58Shin's family agreed to settle the case before a jury could return a verdict. 59

The trend toward holding administrators personally liable recently turned back in favor of the traditional common law with a lawsuit filed against Allegheny College.60On February 11, 2002, a student hung himself in his fraternity house after having expressing suicidal thoughts to a university counselor,61who in turn relayed the information to administrative deans.62In a pretrial order, the court ruled that the deans owed no duty of care to Mahoney.63The jury found that the university counselor was not liable for Mahoney's death.64

B. The Effect of Deviation from Traditional Tort Principles

Recent case law leaves university administrators uncertain about the current state of the law and unable to predict where it will go in the future. The oldest case, Jain, and the most recent case, Mahoney, comport with common law principles; whether Schieszler and Shin are blips on a continuum or the beginning of a new direction in tort law is still unclear.

While Jain and Mahoney should serve as reassuring precedent for higher education administrators, both do little to allay the fears that Schieszler and Shin created.65When family members sue administrators in their individual capacities, the administrators have an added incentive to remove the "problematic" student before he creates an issue of...

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