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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on Monday found that the Massachusetts Higher education and nguyen of Technology, and some of its professors and officials, could not be sued for the suicide in of a graduate student who jumped off a building and killed himself.
He did so shortly after being told by a faculty member that an email he had sent was unprofessional and rude. While the unanimous ruling is a legal victory for MIT, the court also found that colleges have an obligation in some cases to prevent suicides and may be sued for failing to do so.
Significantly, the finding extends beyond those on campuses with expertise in mental health. There are situations, the court found, where professors and others could be sued for failing to do so. That is crucial in part because many students who attempt suicide have never used campus mental health services.
The ruling stresses that college students are not all alike -- in this case the student was an adult, living off campus and seeking treatment outside MIT. But even in such cases, the court found, there can be legal obligations for a college and its professors. Even if MIT and other universities have missions that are primarily academic, their role extends into many aspects of student life, the court said.
In March, the California Supreme Court found that public colleges in the state must warn and shield their students from potential violent acts. The Massachusetts ruling is particularly notable for its findings about "non-clinicians" such as professors and deans who are not trained in mental health issues and do not work in campus counseling centers For professors and others in this category, the court found, the obligation to act to prevent a possible suicide is limited to circumstances where they have "actual knowledge" of a previous suicide attempt while a student was enrolled, or shortly before enrolling, or a student has communicated "stated plans or intentions to commit suicide.
If medical care is refused, the college employee has an obligation to notify the student's emergency contact, the court found. The ruling notes that students' mental health is subject to change, and these obligations relate to current or recent events, not a professor's knowledge about something that happened many years prior.
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 … 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.
The court found that the none of the situations outlined for institutional and individual responsibility to prevent suicide applied in Nguyen's case, even though some faculty members were aware in general that he was struggling with mental health issues.
The court ruling noted that Nguyen "repeatedly made clear" that he wanted to separate his mental health issues from his academic work. Further, he was being treated outside MIT for those issues. Nguyen tried to kill himself twice prior to -- once in and once in But the ruling noted that these incidents were well before he enrolled at MIT, and said there was no evidence that faculty members knew of these suicide attempts.
Beeler, the lawyer for the Nguyen family, told The Boston Globe that he was disappointed that the court had not held MIT responsible in this case.
But Beeler said that the ruling would help other students. MIT released a statement after the ruling that said in part, "The well-being of our students is of paramount importance to the Institute:(David J.
Nguyen is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education & Student Affairs at Ohio University.
His research agenda leverages theoretical insights from behavioral economics, organizational theory, and sociology to examine issues of access and equity in postsecondary education. This article presents an analysis of the sociocultural context of the education system in Vietnam, specifically in terms of the cultural and philosophical dimensions of society, the development and influences of higher education, and the identity and worldviews of the Vietnamese people toward teaching and learning.
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“Contrary to the position of [higher education institutions] the court has explicitly found that they do owe a duty of care to their students at risk of suicide.” Many colleges in Massachusetts filed briefs in the case, backing MIT and urging the court to reject the lawsuit.
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