Do Suicidal Students Have a Right to Stay in School?

Crime, Education, Rights

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, after vehicle accidents. Despite the high incidence, policies regarding how to handle suicide on campus vary from school to school, and some universities have recently come under fire for their responses to suicidal students. A new lawsuit will likely set standards for how schools should handle such situations in the future.

Lawsuit Over Treatment of Suicidal Princeton Student

A Princeton University student, who attempted suicide by medication overdose in his dorm room, later brought a lawsuit against the university alleging that they pressured him to leave school and did not give him support for his mental illness. In 2012, the student sought help from the health center after ingesting a large dose of pills; he was later told that he must withdraw from the school, voluntarily or involuntarily, which he objected to. Other universities have similar policies, but they have rarely been enforced. Because no current laws forbid it, Princeton was within its right to force the student to withdraw.

The student, known anonymously by initials W.P., is also unhappy that the privacy of his medical records was compromised. Other students agree, hoping to end the policy that requires students on mental health leave to waive medical record confidentiality when returning to school.

W.P. believes he was discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that the school should have provided reasonable accommodation for his mental illness.

Mental Illness Protected Under the ADA

The ADA prohibits institutions, including public and private universities, from discriminating against people with disabilities. Mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and personality disorders are all considered disabilities under the ADA. An institution must make “reasonable accommodation” to help a person with a disability and allow them to participate in programs and services.

What is considered reasonable accommodation for students with a mental illnesses? Students receiving “academic adjustments” may receive adjustments including preferential seating in class, permission to record lectures, longer times to complete exams, or extensions for assignments. In addition to such adjustments, students at most universities are able to take advantage of counseling at student health services.

The ADA does require that an individual disclose their disability in order to request accommodation or receive protection under the law. Many physical disabilities are evident without verbal disclosure, but mental illnesses are not as obvious. It is up to the individual to make it known that they want accommodation.

Call for Universities to Be More Forthcoming and Transparent

Sadly, Princeton is not the only school dealing with the issue of suicide. Another Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania, has also been criticized for its handling of student suicides. In the past academic year, four students at Penn have committed suicide. University administrators did not inform the university community of the deaths in a timely fashion, leading community members to call for greater transparency. The university did create a task force on mental health in February, but it may be too little too late.

The outcome of the Princeton case will help set a precedent for how other universities handle suicidal students in the future, as there is currently no clear-cut protocol.

Read more on Avvo’s Education Law topic page.