Students Who Pose a Risk to Themselves

December 7, 2011

Suppose a student makes a suicide attempt.  Suppose s/he just talks frequently of committing suicide.  What should a college do?  Of course do all you can to assure the safety of the student, especially encourage — perhaps insist — that s/he seek counseling.  Suppose the behavior (the attempts, the threats) persist.  Most colleges respond by sending the student home, insisting that s/he cannot return until s/he can provide a letter from a mental health professional attesting that the student poses no harm to him/herself.

Now the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has thrown this practice into question with a recent regulation issued under Title II of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).  Under the new regulation, colleges and universities can send students home who pose a threat to others, but not to themselves.  Today’s Inside Higher Ed provides a meaty account of the new regulation and the consternation it is causing.

The article quotes Rebecca Mills, dean of students at Touro University Nevada and chair of the public policy division of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education:  “Bottom line, many of our most confounding issues on campuses relate to threats of harm to self. As student affairs practitioners, we work to ensure that all students have the opportunity to be successful and to have access to support services when they struggle. However, there are times when threats of harm-to-self become quite disruptive to the educational environment. In those cases, I would prefer an option outside of the judicial process.”

Indeed.  A student suicide on campus can send shock waves through a  student body, and occasion considerable anger that the college failed to do all that it could to keep the student safe.  A college can only do so much, however; you can’t watch a student 24 hours a day.

Is this a disabilities issue?  It could be: certainly mental health issues can be considered as disabilities.  If the student in question has reported the disability and sought appropriate accommodation, then the question becomes what accommodations are appropriate.  It’s hard to imagine an appropriate accommodation that would keep a suicidally-inclined student safe.

Much more commonly, in my experience, students with depression — even severe depression — do not report that they have a disability, even given opportunities to do so.  Under such circumstances, how can the ADA be considered germane?  Or should colleges simply consider anyone who attempts or threatens suicide to have a disability?

Whether or not such cases involve disabilities issues, the line OCR is attempting to draw between harm to oneself and harm to others is bogus.  A student suicide, or even an attempt, causes significant stress and anxiety in other students.  Colleges cannot simply consider the issue as involving the student alone.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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