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Higher Court Will Decide Whether to Dismiss Student Suicide Case

— November 8, 2017

Higher Court Will Decide Whether to Dismiss Student Suicide Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will need to decide whether to dismiss or reopen a lawsuit filed by the father of Han Nguyen, a PhD candidate who, in 2009, jumped to his death from the top of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) building at the age of 25.  The family contends their loved one’s death was preventable and MIT should have done more to protect against it.  Yet, a lower court chose to dismiss the case.

Other prestigious east coast universities, such as Harvard University and Tufts University, have taken an interest in the court proceedings, indicating a ruling against MIT would require non-clinical faculty and staff to protect students against harming themselves.  Eighteen schools in total weighed in, stating such an unfair requirement might expose them to discrimination lawsuits should they exclude such a student from a program to prevent harm.  What’s more, they claim the requirement would have a “chilling effect on students with mental health conditions and other concerns.”

Court documents show Nguyen’s father’s attorney, Jeffrey Beeler, had alleged that MIT and its staff owed a duty of care to Nguyen.  The student’s mental condition was declining, and school officials were well aware he was a suicide risk for some time in advance, yet did nothing about it.

Higher Court Will Decide Whether to Dismiss Student Suicide Case
Image Courtesy of Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Academic freedom is not a license to needlessly and recklessly endanger students known to be at risk of death with impunity; and this court should not allow it to become one at institutions that routinely admit students — many with mental health issues — as young as their mid-teens,” Beeler wrote.

Beeler argued MIT faculty is familiar with the risk of suicide among all of its students, in general, given the high-pressure environment and should have foreseen the possibility that Nguyen would end his own life.  In fact, in 2008, administrators had been warned of Nguyen’s risk.  Four months prior to the student’s death, a professor recommended colleagues avoid giving Nguyen a failing grade because doing so would cause them to have “blood on their hands.”

The day Nguyen took his life, that same professor “read him the riot act” after Nguyen sent one of his colleagues concerns regarding a possible position for him after he did not get accepted into another school’s summer program, according to court records.  Yet, nothing more was done.

MIT urged the court to dismiss the suicide case, as it had been dismissed in a lower court.  The university argued that a ruling against it would completely transform the relationship between school faculty members and their students, placing demands on faculty not necessarily qualified to handle them.

“It would be groundbreaking,” agreed Gary Pavela, a consultant on law and policy issues in higher education and author of a book about legal questions surrounding student suicides. “It would cause alarm in higher education,” he added.

In an official statement, MIT specifically said that despite the court proceedings and allegations against it, the institution “remains committed to the well-being of its students, offering a robust network of support resources, including comprehensive mental health services.”


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