Massachusetts court to weigh universities’ suicide prevention role

BOSTON (Reuters) – The top court in Massachusetts is expected to hear arguments on Tuesday in a closely watched lawsuit against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology questioning to what extent universities and colleges can be held responsible when students commit suicide.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will weigh whether to revive a lawsuit by the father of Han Nguyen, a PhD candidate who at the age of 25 jumped to his death from the top of a building on the prestigious university’s campus in 2009.

The lawsuit has drawn the interest of other Massachusetts schools, including Harvard University and Tufts University, which say a ruling against MIT would unreasonably require non-clinical faculty and staff to secure students against harming themselves.

The 18 schools said in a brief that such a requirement could expose them to discrimination lawsuits if they exclude such a student from a program to prevent harm and would have a “chilling effect on students with mental health conditions and other concerns.”

In court papers, a lawyer for Nguyen’s father contends that MIT and its employees owed a duty of care to Nguyen, whose mental health status was declining, yet officials at the school did nothing despite knowing he was a suicide risk.

The lawyer, Jeffrey Beeler, argues that MIT faculty and employees were well-aware of the risk of suicide among its students generally and foresaw the possibility that Nguyen would take his own life, but did nothing to ensure he got help.

As early as 2008, faculty members warned of his suicide risk while deciding to modify his exams, the lawyer said. Four months before Nguyen died, a professor recommended colleagues avoid failing him because they might have “blood on their hands.”

The day he died, that professor “read him the riot act” over an email Nguyen sent another professor expressing concerns about a possible position for him after he lost out on another school’s summer program, Beeler said in court papers.

MIT urged the court to uphold a lower-court judge’s decision to dismiss the case, saying a ruling against it would transform the relationship between faculty and their students and impose unreasonable demands on non-clinicians.

In a statement, MIT said regardless of the legal issues before the court, it “remains committed to the wellbeing of its students, offering a robust network of support resources, including comprehensive mental health services.”

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Dan Grebler

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