Hunter Settles Suicide Suit

Payment awarded to student who was barred from dorm after taking pills, and college will review its mental health policy.
August 24, 2006

On Wednesday, lawyers representing a former honors student at Hunter College of the City University of New York announced that the institution has settled a lawsuit, which centered on its treatment of students with mental health issues.

The case, which was filed in federal court on behalf of a woman who was not identified, resulted in a $65,000 settlement for her. In a letter accompanying the settlement, lawyers for the institution indicated that the college’s “suicide policy” is “under review,” and may be changed to be less punitive toward students who attempt suicide.

Currently, the policy indicates that a student who tries to take his or her life is automatically barred from living in the institution’s dorms, and must leave campus for one full semester after the semester in which he or she is banned. “[S]tudents with psychological issues may be mandated by the Office of Residence Life to receive counseling,” according to the policy.

Richard Kadison, director of mental health services at Harvard University, said Wednesday that such policies are uncommon and “risky” because they don't allow for individual circumstances that may make such stipulations unreasonable and potentially harmful to students.

Rita Rodin, a spokeswoman for the CUNY system, confirmed the settlement, but said that she could not offer any comment regarding Hunter College’s review of its suicide policy.

The settlement comes amid lots of discussion about college policies involving suicidal students. On Monday, court hearings began in a lawsuit began against Allegheny College by the parents of a student who hanged himself in 2005; they contend that his counselor had a responsibility to prevent their son’s suicide. Also ongoing is  a suit headed toward trial against George Washington University, in which a student is seeking both damages and reform of the university's policy of expelling students who express suicidal thoughts.

In June 2004, the student in the Hunter College case -- whose name has not been released by her lawyers, to protect her privacy -- found herself adversely affected by the policy, according to court records. After taking a large number of Tylenol pills and making an emergency trip to a hospital, she returned home to find that the locks on her doors had been changed.

Immediately, according to her lawyers, she asked that college administrators let her remain in the dorms, as doctors had determined that she was not a danger to herself or others. Her request was denied. Ultimately, she was allowed to pack up her belongings only under surveillance of a security guard, which humiliated her, according to court documents. She also became worried once again about her mental state.

“It was very difficult for her,” said David Goldfarb, one of her lawyers. “She felt that everyone knew her business and was very uncomfortable.”

After she sued the college -- charging violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act -- Goldfarb said that the student began feeling overwhelmed, and left college.

Until the settlement, Hunter College had defended its policy in court, but with the letter accompanying the settlement, which promises a review, that course appears to be reversed.

“Individualized responses to a student’s situation are crucial to prevent the kind of arbitrary exclusion that [the student] faced,” said Karen Bower, another lawyer for the student, who works for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health. “Schools that exclude students who seek help discourage them from getting the help they need, isolate the students from friends and support at a time when support is most needed, and send students the message that they have done something wrong.”

The student could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but Goldfarb said that she views the settlement as a victory, and may return to Hunter, where she would be eligible to complete three courses left incomplete after she exited the institution.

She will receive the payment in monthly increments over four years, at her request.


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