NEW YORK — A depressed Hunter College student who swallowed handfuls of Tylenol, then saved her own life by calling 911, was in for a surprise when she returned to her dorm room after the ordeal. The lock had been changed on the door.
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She was being expelled from the residence, the school informed her, because she violated her housing contract by attempting suicide. The 19-year-old was allowed to retrieve her belongings in the presence of a security guard.
Policies barring potentially suicidal students from campus dorms have popped up across the country in recent years as colleges have struggled to decide how to best curb an estimated 1,100 suicides a year.
But just as quickly, some of those rules have come under attack.
Hunter College announced last week that it was abandoning its 3-year-old suicide policy as part of a legal settlement with the student, who sued claiming her 2004 ouster from the dorms violated federal law protecting disabled people from discrimination.
The school, part of the City University of New York system, also agreed to pay her $65,000.
Hunter spokeswoman Meredith Halpern said the college may still consider temporary removal from residence halls a future option for troubled students, but such evictions will no longer be automatic.
Will policy scare students from getting help?
Karen Bower, a senior attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, which helped litigate the case, said she hoped the settlement would prompt other schools to rethink their policies.
"The real danger of these policies is that they discourage students from getting the help that they really need," Bower said.
Young students might be scared away from speaking out about suicidal thoughts if they believed it would mean an abrupt eviction, she said.
Similar lawsuits are already in the works.
George Washington University is being sued by a former student who was barred from campus and threatened with expulsion after checking himself in to a hospital for depression.
The student, Jordan Nott, said he never tried to kill himself, but had been thinking about it because of the suicide death of a close friend, also a George Washington student.
The Bazelon Center is also representing a student at a Connecticut boarding school who was placed on a mandatory leave after seeking treatment for depression.
Role of colleges
Schools and the courts have grappled with the issue of depressed students for years.
The prevailing legal theory had long been that adult students were responsible for their own behavior, but that philosophy was undermined by a pair of court rulings involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ferrum College in Virginia.
In both cases, judges ruled prior to out-of-court settlements that colleges might have a duty to prevent suicide if the risk was foreseeable. The cases prompted some schools to be more aggressive about sending troubled pupils home.
George Washington University spokeswoman Tracy Schario said the school's treatment of Nott wasn't an attempt to limit legal liability.
"The intention was to protect a life," she said.
She added that Nott's case was an unusual one. More than 200 students seek help for depression or suicidal thoughts each year at George Washington, and a majority are not asked to leave.
"It is always a case-by-case assessment of what is best for that particular student," Schario said.
She acknowledged, however, that the university's current practice of using its disciplinary system to handle some students with psychological problems "does appear insensitive" and said alternate procedures were being considered.
Joanna Locke of the Jed Foundation, a program aimed at preventing college suicides, said schools should have enough flexibility in their mandatory-leave policies to allow for individual circumstances.
'No right answer'
Some schools, she said, may feel a need to send a student home if they lack the resources to offer help, or if their behavior has become disruptive.
"There is no right answer, except that (the decision) should be made carefully, and the decision should be made kindly," she said.
Colleges may wind up in court no matter which approach they take.
A jury in Pennsylvania decided Thursday that Allegheny College was not liable for the 2002 suicide of a student who was allowed to stay in class for years while he battled severe depression.
Lawyers for the parents of Charles Mahoney, 20, said the school should have contacted his family and put him on a mandatory leave of absence.
The jury also cleared a college counselor and consulting psychiatrist of any liability in the death.
Allegheny said in a written statement after the verdict that the case was "a tragedy for all involved."
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