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The pressure to inoculate schools from legal liability has sometimes led them to come across as shockingly insensitive. In a case study of apparent hamhandedness, Jordan Nott had spent less than 48 hours in the psychiatric ward he checked himself into, in October 2004, when he received a terse letter from George Washington University informing the sophomore that he had been suspended for being a danger to himself and others. "It was a huge slap in the face," says Nott, 20. "They don't hand out this letter that says, 'We want you to get help.' What it says is, 'You've been suspended; you've been barred from campus.'" The letter went on to explain that if he returned to campus, he would be arrested. Rather than contest the suspension, he switched schools and is now suing for compensatory damages. A spokeswoman for G.W.U. says that because Nott's suspension fell within the school's disciplinary system, the wording of that letter may have seemed impersonal. However, she stresses, "the goal here was to protect a life."
But how, exactly, does yanking a kid out of college count as protection? "A lot of suicidal people don't just kill themselves," says Peter Lake, a higher-education law professor at Stetson University in Deland, Fla. "They also can hurt others, even if it's unintentionally." Schools steadfastly reserve the right not to let one person's disturbing behavior disrupt anyone else's educational experience. And they argue that their mandatory-leave policy can force emotionally distressed students to get the best possible help. Gary Pavela, a judicial-policy expert at the University of Maryland and author of a book on student suicide, says the approach is designed for "getting rid of troubled kids, getting them into the hands of others, as soon as possible."
Litigious parents are also to blame for the tough line. After Elizabeth Shin died in 2000 in a dorm-room fire at M.I.T. within hours of threatening to kill herself, the sophomore's parents filed a $27 million lawsuit against her psychiatrists, as well as her house master and a dean of student life, for failing to take adequate precautions. (They had scheduled an appointment to see her the following day.) When a judge last year refused to throw out the suit, alarm bells went off in administrative offices across the country. "To hold a university liable for simply trying to help a student is extraordinary," says Nelson Roth, Cornell's deputy university counsel, explaining why the school joined six others in supporting M.I.T. in the case. Shin's death was a tragedy, Roth says, "but not every tragedy warrants a lawsuit."
Although the Shins settled last month for an undisclosed amount--and publicly admitted that their daughter's death appeared to be accidental--the case has had a chilling effect on student-services professionals and has led to more frequent use of emergency-leave policies. But after several students complained about getting summarily booted, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights started informing schools that a person should be considered a direct threat only when there is "a high probability of substantial harm and not just a slightly increased, speculative or remote risk." In other words, there needs to be a detailed evaluation and at least some opportunity for students to make a case for why they should be allowed to stay.