In 2004, then-University of New England President Sandra Featherman authored a piece for NEJHE (then called Connection) headlined “Emotional Rescue” and focusing on how a new generation of troubled college students was putting a strain on campus resources. Featherman, who died in April, wrote of colleges and universities scrambling to provide additional and better support services for students in need. She cited to a 2001 University of Pittsburgh survey in which 85% of schools reported increases in the severity of problems presenting at campus counseling centers over the preceding five years. Eight years later, a NEJHE article by Lasell College admission counselor Christopher M. Gray asked whether the proliferation of natural disasters and tragedies like the Sandy Hook mass shooting were creating a new category of emotionally vulnerable college students. Specifically, he suggested that it was higher education professionals’ “duty to aid these college-bound students as much as possible,” and urged the provision of counseling, knowledge and support. But moral duties and obligations aside, what is a higher education institution’s legal obligation to provide support services? And from a risk-management perspective, if the institution provides such services, what is its liability if the student’s mental health issues nevertheless consume him or her?
The recent case of Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, et al, considered the question of whether a college or university has the affirmative obligation to protect its students from all harm at all times, including suicide. Han Nguyen was a 25-year old graduate student at MIT when he committed suicide in 2009. His family sued the school, alleging that the school lacked sufficient support services, did not provide adequate care for its students, and failed to intervene despite knowledge of his mental state. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did not find MIT liable under the facts of the case, and within its decision, the Court articulated the obligations of colleges and universities when it comes to suicide prevention.
Ultimately, the Court rejected the notion that colleges and universities must act in loco parentis and keep its students safe under all circumstances. “University students are young adults, not young children. Indeed, graduate students are adults in all respects under the law. Universities recognize their students’ adult status, their desire for independence, and their need to exercise their own judgment. Consequently the modern university-student relationship is respectful of student autonomy and privacy.”
The Court identified limited circumstances under which a college or university must take reasonable measures to protect a student from self-harm: where the college or university has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled or recently before matriculation, or of a student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide.
The Court also addressed what would satisfy the college or university’s obligations under such circumstances. “Reasonable measures by the university to satisfy a triggered duty will include initiating its suicide prevention protocol if the university has developed such a protocol. In the absence of such a protocol, reasonable measures will require the university employee who learns of the student’s suicide attempt or stated plans or intentions to commit suicide to contact the appropriate officials at the university empowered to assist the student in obtaining clinical care from medical professionals or, if the student refuses such care, to notify the student’s emergency contact. In emergency situations, reasonable measures obviously would include contacting police, fire, or emergency medical personnel.”
The Court’s decision is crucial in encouraging schools to continue to offer resources to students in need. The Court not only placed finite parameters on when a school has a duty to intervene, but also identified the “complex and competing considerations” giving rise to its decision: adult students’ privacy and autonomy; the notion that non-clinicians cannot and should not be expected to probe or discern suicidal ideations that are not expressly evident; and allowing schools to take steps to acknowledge and manage the risk of campus suicide with realistic duties and responsibilities.
To be sure, the MIT student at issue had a history of presenting with academic concerns, even admitting to mental health issues. In May 2007, he had contacted his program coordinator for assistance with test-taking problems. The program coordinator referred him to a coordinator in the MIT student disability services office, who described some of MIT’s accommodations for students with disabilities. The student declined the accommodations. The program coordinator then referred him to MIT’s mental health and counseling service. The student met with a psychologist on three occasions, but ultimately reported that he would be receiving treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, not through MIT. Subsequently, the student twice met with the assistant dean in the student support office. Ultimately, the student did not seek or receive assistance from that office either. Nor did he ever communicate to any MIT employee that he had plans or intentions to commit suicide, and any prior attempts that were discussed took place well over a year before matriculation at MIT. The plaintiff nevertheless claimed, among other things, that MIT had voluntarily assumed a duty of care. But the Court found that “[a]lthough MIT voluntarily offers mental health student support services, there [was] no evidence that [the] services increased [the student’s] risk of suicide [or] that [the student] relied on [these] mental health services.”
Nothing within this case minimizes the tragedy that is the loss of a student. Nothing within this case suggests that colleges and universities can or should be ambivalent to the needs of their students or that an institution will never, under any circumstances, face liability for failing to prevent a foreseeable student suicide. Rather, the Court made clear what the school’s duties and obligations are. To have decided this case any other way would have had a chilling effect on colleges and universities’ efforts to provide support and services to the increasingly large population of students in need of assistance.
Lynette Paczkowski is a partner at the Massachusetts law firm of Bowditch & Dewey, with experience representing clients from various industries including education, construction, utility, professional services, real estate and nonprofit, as well as individuals in litigation matters and litigation-avoidance strategies.