Eviction of Suicidal Students Prompting Lawsuits

NEW YORK – Some universities and colleges that bar potentially suicidal students from residence halls are facing court challenges.

Hunter College recently settled a lawsuit with one of its students who had a depressive episode in 2004. The case involved a 19-year-old woman who swallowed a handful of Tylenol, only to change her mind and call 911.

After the ordeal, the student tried to get back into her dorm room but discovered the lock had been changed. The school expelled her from the residence hall because when she attempted suicide, she violated her dorm contract. Despite not being permitted back in the dorms, she was allowed to retrieve her belongs while being watched by a guard. She was also permitted to continue taking her classes.

The woman filed a lawsuit claiming her removal was a violation of anti-discrimination laws. Hunter College settled the case and agreed to pay her $65,000 as well as drop its suicide policy. Although some troubled students at Hunter may still be temporarily evicted, the move will no longer be automatic.

As colleges attempt to deal with the approximately 1,100 suicides each year, policies such as Hunter’s have become more common. According to school officials, the college’s policy was intended to protect student privacy. Additionally, by removing suicidal students, officials believed the school was encouraging pupils to seek help and take a break from the stress of classes.

Opponents of the policies, however, believe schools like Hunter are trying to avoid legal liability. Those who are against sending troubled students home also say these policies discourage them from getting help.

George Washington University is also being sued for having a similar policy to Hunter’s. The lawsuit involves a male student who had checked himself into the hospital for depression. The school responded by barring him from campus, saying he might be expelled.

Officials at the school are now considering alternatives. A spokeswoman for the school says that most students who get help for depression are not denied access to campus.

Suicide policies like the ones at Hunter College and George Washington University were prompted a few years ago by two cases where judges ruled that schools should prevent suicides when there is reason to believe a student might take his or her own life. The most current round of litigation, however, is prompting revisions.

How to handle troubled students continues to be a difficult issue to address. Most agree that universities can take action in some cases where a student becomes disruptive – such as those involving campus security or a midnight hospitalization. Still, care and compassion should be the primary considerations when make decisions involving depressed and suicidal students.

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