Yesterday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts determined MIT could not be reasonably held responsible for graduate student Han Nguyen’s 2009 suicide. In its 44-page opinion, the court determined that even in light of the special relationship colleges and universities have with their students, an institution cannot be held liable for the actions of an adult who is entitled to “privacy, autonomy and self-determination.”
The court went one step further to define the “limited circumstances” and expectations a university’s duty of care extends to its students in the context of suicide. This opinion asserts nonclinical faculty and staff cannot be reasonability expected to determine the “foreseeability” of a student’s intent to harm themselves, and foreseeability creates a time-bound duty of care. Only when the institution is knowledgeable of both the student’s suicidal ideation and “stated plans or intentions to act on such thoughts” is the duty of care triggered.
The opinion offers insights into the courts understanding of the duty of care an institution must impose post-_in loco parentis_. Here are a few of the takeaways colleges and universities should glean from this case:
One: Develop a suicide prevention protocol and stick with it. The court asserts that a duty of care is satisfied if faculty or staff take “reasonable measures” upon learning of a student’s intent to harm themselves, even if the student in questions refuses assistance or fails to respond to the protocol. Creating a pre-determined course of action to take when a student informs an employee of their intent to self-harm reduces lag in response time, promotes confidence in how to act, and can help students better understand what to expect from their university if they make such a claim.
Two: Train faculty to exercise caution when discussing student concerns, especially in writing. Staff, particularly student affairs professionals, are often trained how to issue correspondence dealing with sensitive student issues due to the nature of their role on campus, but faculty rarely receive such training or are expected to respond to students in crisis. The plaintiff’s main assertion was the faculty advisors of the student were well aware of Nguyen’s suicide ideation as reflected by their phraseology in their email correspondence, and therefore voluntarily assumed a duty of care not normally extended to faculty members. Moreover, testimony revealed on professor used the term “blood on their hands” numerous times to describe his concern for Nguyen. Had MIT worked with faculty to help them better understand the potential liability incurred by their choice of language, the plaintiff’s case would have been significantly diminished.
Three: The nature of special relationship and duty of care may be subject to a student’s age and place of residence. Whereas the court did not hold MIT responsible for the actions of an off-campus, 25 year-old graduate student, twice it stated that the burden of duty of care for undergraduates and those living in university housing (as they are seemingly “under daily observation”) may be greater. This differentiation may play a role in the perceived effectiveness of suicide prevention protocols in the event of litigation.
Four: When in doubt, call mom and dad. In keeping with the 2012 FERPA amendment, the court determined that a reasonable course of action is be to contact a student’s emergency, most often their parents, contact when self-harm is foreseeable. The court also openly recognized a student’s relationships with their parents may be a factor in their suicide ideation but should not be seen as a deterrent in getting the student help. The court stated clinician staff members are still subject to HIPAA regulations when working with suicidal students.
Disclosure: The author is a former staff member at MIT and had a working relationship with one of the named defendants in the case. However, the author was not a staff member at MIT until two years after Nguyen’s death.