- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) - A depressed Hunter College student who swallowed handfuls of Tylenol, then saved her own life by calling 911, was in for a surprise when she returned to her dorm room after the ordeal.

The lock had been changed.

She was being expelled from the dorm, the school informed her, because she violated her housing contract by attempting suicide.

Policies barring potentially suicidal students from dorms have popped up across the country in recent years as colleges have struggled to deal with an estimated 1,100 suicides a year. But some of those rules have come under legal attack.

Hunter College announced last month that it was abandoning its 3-year-old suicide policy as part of a settlement with the student. The student, who was allowed to continue attending class, claimed in a lawsuit that her 2004 ouster from the dorms violated federal law protecting disabled people from discrimination.

The school, part of the City University of New York system, also agreed to pay her $65,000.

Hunter spokeswoman Meredith Halpern said the college may still consider temporarily removing troubled students from its residence halls, but such evictions will no longer be automatic. Miss Halpern said Hunter’s policy was aimed at protecting students’ privacy.

At George Washington University, spokeswoman Tracy Schario said the idea is to give suicidal students a break from the stresses of university life and encourage them to seek help.

But some activists suspect such evictions are an attempt by colleges to avoid legal liability if someone commits suicide in the dorms.

Up until recently, the prevailing legal theory had long been that adult students were responsible for their own behavior, and that colleges could not be held liable. But that philosophy was undermined by a pair of court rulings involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ferrum College in Virginia.

In both cases, judges ruled prior to out-of-court settlements that colleges might have a duty to prevent a suicide if the risk was foreseeable. The cases prompted some schools to be more aggressive about sending troubled students home.

Karen Bower, a lawyer with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, which helped litigate the Hunter College case, said she hopes the settlement will prompt other schools to rethink their policies. “The real danger of these policies is that they discourage students from getting the help that they really need,” Miss Bower said.

George Washington University is being sued by a former student who was barred from campus and threatened with expulsion after checking himself into a hospital for depression. The student, Jordan Nott, said he never tried to kill himself, but had been thinking about it because of the suicide of a close friend, also a George Washington student.

Miss Schario said GW’s treatment of Mr. Nott was not an attempt to limit legal liability, but “to protect a life.” She added that Mr. Nott’s case was an unusual one. More than 200 students seek help for depression or suicidal thoughts each year at George Washington, and a majority are not asked to leave.

“It is always a case-by-case assessment of what is best for that particular student,” Miss Schario said.

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