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MIT not to blame for grad student's suicide, court rules

The Supreme Judicial Court today dismissed a wrongful-death suit by the father of an MIT graduate student who threw himself off the roof of a campus building, saying that while colleges do have some unique obligations to protect their students, there are limits to what they can be expected to do, in an age in which students, especially at the graduate level, expect to be treated as adults with rights, including that of privacy.

Han Duy Nguyen died in 2009 while a student at MIT's Sloan School, several months after he first sought and then rejected help for his difficulties in test taking, and as he was receiving off-campus counseling and even shock treatment. Nguyen had twice tried to commit suicide, but the last attempt was more than a year before he entered the Sloan School, and neither on-campus counselors nor a Mass. General doctor he was seeing felt he was feeling suicidal at the time.

In its ruling, the state's highest court said colleges do have an obligation to their young charges. But at the same time, they are legally adults, so the question becomes how to balance university responsibilities and student rights. The court detailed Nguyen's interactions with an MIT associate dean and two professors in the months before his death:

Nguyen never communicated by words or actions to any MIT employee that he had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, and any prior suicide attempts occurred well over a year before matriculation. He also was a twenty-five year old adult graduate student living off campus, not a young student living in a campus dormitory under daily observation. Nguyen repeatedly made clear that he wanted to keep his mental health issues separate from his academic performance problems and that he was seeking professional help from psychiatrists and psychologists outside the MIT Mental Health system.

Additionally, although Nguyen had frequent suicidal thoughts, which, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, can be read as present not past suicidal thoughts, Nguyen denied suicidal ideation in 2007. Thus, [Assistant Dean David] Randall had no actual knowledge of Nguyen having attempted suicide while enrolled at or recently before matriculating to MIT, or whether Nguyen had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide. Consequently, Randall had no special relationship with Nguyen and thus no duty to take reasonable measures to prevent Nguyen's suicide two years before his death. Nonetheless, Randall properly encouraged Nguyen to seek professional help at MIT, which Nguyen, as was his right, refused. Nguyen also informed Randall that he was seeking professional help elsewhere and Randall sought permission to communicate with that psychiatrist, which Nguyen allowed and then promptly revoked.

Finally, Randall invited further conversations with Nguyen, which he declined. That being said, Randall left Nguyen in the care of competent outside professionals as Nguyen demanded. In these circumstances, as a matter of law, a twenty-five year old graduate student's rights to privacy, autonomy, and self determination were properly respected.

In considering his case, the court drew up some guidelines for institutions of higher learning:

Students are adults but often young and vulnerable; their right to privacy and their desire for independence may conflict with their immaturity and need for protection. As for the universities, their primary mission is to educate and they no longer are acting in loco parentis, but they still have a wide-ranging involvement in the lives of their students. See, e.g. Mullins, 389 Mass. at 52; Bradshaw, 612 F.2d at 138. ...

Nonclinicians are also not expected to discern suicidal tendencies where the student has not stated his or her plans or intentions to commit suicide. Even a student's generalized statements about suicidal thoughts or ideation are not enough, given their prevalence in the university community. The duty is not triggered merely by a university's knowledge of a student's suicidal ideation without any stated plans or intentions to act on such thoughts. As previously explained, this duty hinges on foreseeability. See Irwin, 392 Mass. at 756; Mullins, 389 Mass. at 52. See also Massie, Suicide on Campus, 91 Marq. L. Rev. at 639. Where a student has attempted suicide while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or has stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, suicide is sufficiently foreseeable as the law has defined the term, even for university nonclinicians without medical training. Reliance of the student on the university for assistance, at least for students living in dormitories or away from their parents or guardians, is also foreseeable. ...

We stress that the duty here, at least for nonclinicians, is limited. It is created only by actual knowledge of a student's suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student's stated plans or intentions to commit suicide. It also is limited to initiating the university's suicide prevention protocol, and if the school has no such protocol, arranging for clinical care by trained medical professionals or, if such care is refused, alerting the student's emergency contact. Finally, the duty is time-bound. Medical professionals may, for example, conclude that the student is no longer a suicide risk and no further care or counselling is required.

This limited duty takes a number of the complex and competing considerations discussed above into account. First, it respects the privacy and autonomy of adult students in most circumstances, relying in all but emergency situations on the student's own capacity and desire to seek professional help to address his or her mental health issues. Second, it recognizes that nonclinicians cannot be expected to probe or discern suicidal intentions that are not expressly evident. It also acknowledges the scope of the suicide risk on campus and seeks to impose realistic duties and responsibilities on the universities, allowing them to respond with their own suicide prevention protocols if such protocols have been developed. Finally, this limited duty is consistent with the modern university relationship with its students, which is no longer in loco parentis but rather provides for the students' independence and self-determination.

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Wow, talk about different interpretations! Globe headline: "SJC rules Mass. colleges have legal duty to prevent students from committing suicide". I like yours better.

Voting closed 11

Interesting that Adam's headline above gives the opposite impression from the headline on bostonglobe.com:

"MIT not to blame for grad student's suicide, court rules" [UHub]

"SJC rules Mass. colleges have legal duty to prevent students from committing suicide" [Globe]

As detailed by Adam, the actual text of the ruling is somewhere in between; but the headlines are going off in different directions entirely. [I haven't read the Globe article, just the headline.]

Voting closed 21

I focused on one, the Globe on two others.

My focus, as you can read above, was that MIT was not to blame for the man's death, and so the court dismissed the father's wrongful-death lawsuit.

But the decision actually does a couple of other things:

For one, it sets standards by which colleges CAN be held responsible for a student suicide (which I discuss, but more obliquely than perhaps I should have, since those standards now apply to every college in the state) - and then rules that, in this one case, MIT did not do anything that would have violated those new rules.

And as the Globe notes, the man's father can continue to press a claim that his son was an MIT employee and so deserves worker's comp.

Voting closed 11

It's a sad story, as are all suicides. But enough with the 'young' business. He was a grown man - a graduate student, not a college freshman. At his age, young men used to captain ships that sailed around the world. Now, somehow, guys who are 25-26 are called 'kids' when it's convenient. He was old enough to be a parent himself - at some point, institutions have to treat adults like adults. A rare good decision here.

Voting closed 13