Universities consider rights of depressed students

Universities may be forced to reevaluate how they deal with depressed students after a recent settlement stemming from the death of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student.

On April 3, the family of former MIT student Elizabeth Shin settled with the university for an undisclosed sum, ending nearly six years of controversy surrounding the circumstances of her untimely death.

In April of 2000, Shin burned to death in a dorm room fire in what was thought at the time to be a suicide. Though both the family and the school now say the fire was an accident, it is believed she may have been unable to respond to the situation due to an overdose of over-the-counter medication.

The family originally filed a suit for $27 million against the school charging tat counselors had inadequately responded to Shin’s depressed state. The suit was dismissed in court, but the Smith family persisted in suing two student-life staff members and four MIT psychiatrists before the settlement was reached.

MIT President Charles M. Vest sent a letter to MIT faculty, students and parents earlier this year offering his condolences to the family but firmly stating his belief in the efforts of therapists at the university.

“We grieve for Elizabeth Shin and try to understand the depth of her family’s anguish, but we will defend those at MIT who labored hard and appropriately to help her,” Vest wrote. “We are extraordinarily grateful to them.”

“This settlement will spare all of them the further emotional distress of a trial,” said MIT’s Chancellor Phillip L. Clay in a statement.

The case has grabbed the attention of universities throughout the nation. While courts have not traditionally held universities and faculty liable for student suicides, the incident at MIT has opened a debate into how responsible schools are for their students’ happiness.

Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel to the American Council on Education, said the Shin case will almost certainly set a precedent for how student suicides are dealt with by universities in the future.

“The case has raised the specter of potential liability,” Steinbach said in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Individuals who may not have thought about it al least now must consider legal ramifications of what they’re doing with regard to emotionally disturbed students. But those concerns existed prior to Shin and will continue to control future administrative action.”

Indeed, the Shin case shines a light on several past and present cases of school involvement in student depression.

A case in Iowa in 2000 determined that university officials did not have to notify parents of their son’s depression and suicidal threats. In another case, a former George Washington University student has sued the school for their mandatory leave policy after he was dismissed by GW for having serious depression.

The Shin case is likely to be looked to for guidance as university liability becomes more of an issue around the country.

“The quandary that (MIT staff members) face is balancing students’ legal and medical privacy rights with the obvious interests of parents in knowing how their sons and daughters are doing,” Vest said. “We strongly encourage our students to involve their parents in their lives, and in almost all cases that is what happens.”

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