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Virginia Addresses Student Suicides

Legislature signs bill banning schools from expelling suicidal students

By Alexander B. Cohn, Crimson Staff Writer

Virginia legislators unanimously passed a bill prohibiting the state’s public universities from punishing or expelling students who attempt to commit suicide or seek treatment for suicidal tendencies.

The legislation, approved on Friday, comes in the wake of a spate of suicides at Virginia universities. And it follows several high-profile cases, including one at MIT in 2000, in which families of college students who were suspected of committing suicide sued universities officials for failing to provide adequate mental health care.

“It is the only bill of its type in the country,” said the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Albert C. Eisenberg, a Democrat, in a phone interview with The Crimson.

But at Harvard, a top mental health official said that the legislation, if signed into law, could carry dangerous consequences for Virginia universities in forcing them to care for mentally ill students.

“Who would be responsible for 24-hour treatment?” Dr. Paul J. Barreira, Harvard’s director of university counseling, academic support and mental health services, said in an interview.

Barreira added that keeping a suicidal student on campus was an unfair burden to place on roommates of the mentally ill. He also said that universities would incur enormous costs providing such comprehensive treatment, which is not covered by current student medical coverage.

Barreira said Harvard handles such situations on a case-by-case basis, and rarely punishes or expels students for attempting suicide or displaying suicidal behavior. In most cases, he said, withdrawals by students showing suicidal tendencies “end up being voluntary.”

“At some point, everybody recognizes that the student needs treatment elsewhere.”

He estimated that around 15 students leave Harvard each year “because they are distressed.”

Havard currently has a protocol for handling such cases, including “an assessment of the student’s ability ‘to do the work’; in this case perform within the academic and residential environment,” according to a procedural outline written by Barreira.

Although no legislators voted against the Virginia bill, it has yet to be signed into law by the governor. Eisenberg, the sponsor, said he sees no reason why it won’t be.

Eisenberg said the bill would also require public colleges and universities to develop programs that would direct students in crisis to mental health experts.

The second part of the bill states, “The policies shall ensure that no student is penalized or expelled solely for attempting to commit suicide, or seeking mental health treatment for suicidal thoughts or behaviors.”

According to Eisenberg, the bill is in response to a slew of suicides at Virginia universities.

In addition, several families of students who were thought to have committed suicide sued their universities. In the case of MIT student Elizabeth H. Shin, who died of burns in her dormitory room in 2000, the family initially sued for $27 million. The Shin family settled with MIT last year, saying that the death was probably an accident.

—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at abcohn@fas.harvard.

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