Elizabeth Shin, an MIT student, committed suicide by self-immolation in her dorm room in April, 2000. For years, MIT had a reputation of being a challenging educational environment for students, with a higher incidence of suicide than average for college students.
Shin's parents sued the school for wrongful death, alleging that it had failed their daughter in the delivery of mental health services rendered to her.
Their $27.65 million case settled out of court, and has had a long lasting effect on the relationship between students and their colleges. It is now recognized that schools have a duty to aid and protect their students who require help in dealing with college life.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, after accidents. Parents of suicidal students are often surprised to find out that college administrators, faculty or other personnel were aware of mental health issues with their children. Colleges have not been open to disclose mental health or substance abuse issues of their students because of privacy laws. Because of the difficulty in dealing with such problem students, many colleges choose to suspend or dismiss them. The failure of colleges to help their students with such mental health issues may result in serious liability to the schools.
In 2005, a Massachusetts court, ruling on summary judgment motions made by MIT defendants [pre-settlement], decided that college administrations and their students have a "special relationship", imposing on the school the duty to exercise reasonable care to protect their students from harm. As the school's administrators were "well aware of Elizabeth's mental problems at MIT" for a period of 18 months or so, the school was was under a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect her from harm. The administration was not proactive enough in the face her escalating problem.
It is very likely that this ruling settled the legal action.
Unfortunately, campus suicides have been increasing over the past three decades. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1,350 college students commit suicide annually.
College administrators must confront the problem student before it is too late to help. While young people have a right to privacy, and a responsibility to self-care, college communities, health care providers and parents alike share the burden of early reporting, detection or intervention for those who show signs of mental health or substance abuse problems.
Knowledge of a student experiencing a mental health (or substance abuse) problem, may result in the imposition of a "duty" on the college to protect the student from harm.