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On Monday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a precedential decision in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology et al. (SJC-12329), which addresses the complicated issue of higher education institutions’ responsibility to protect students at risk of suicide.

The plaintiff sued MIT and several professors and deans for the wrongful death of his son, who committed suicide as an MIT graduate student, alleging that MIT was negligent in not preventing his son’s suicide. The case presented a somewhat novel question regarding the obligations of a university to intervene where a student appears or is known to be a suicide risk. The SJC held that in certain circumstances, there may be “a special relationship and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent suicide” between a university and its student. However, in this case, there was no such duty, and the court affirmed the lower court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law in favor of MIT.

The decision sets a new standard for universities in handling at-risk students.  Although the SJC acknowledged that, as a general rule, there is no duty to prevent another from committing suicide, it concluded that in some circumstances, a special relationship may impose affirmative duties of suicide prevention. Rejecting the past notion of schools as “in loco parentis,” the SJC reasoned that universities “are not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of their students’ lives,” and acknowledged that students have an expectation of and right to privacy regarding their mental health records and personal mental health decisions. Nonetheless, universities are “clearly not bystanders or strangers in regards to their students,” and have deep involvement in all aspects of a student’s life, which may give rise to an affirmative duty of suicide prevention.

Based on this reasoning, the SJC held that a university has a special relationship with a student and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent his or her suicide where the university “has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide.” This duty “hinges on foreseeability” and actual knowledge. In these circumstances, the university has a duty to take “reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm.” 

In its opinion, the SJC provided some guidance on what “reasonable measures” means:

  • For universities that have a suicide prevention protocol, reasonable measures “will include initiating [the university’s] suicide prevention protocol.”
  • For universities that do not have such a protocol, “the university employee who learns of the student’s suicide attempt or stated plans or intentions to commit suicide” must “contact the appropriate officials at the university empowered to assist the student in obtaining clinical care from medical professionals or, if the student refuses such care, to notify the student’s emergency contact.”
  • If the situation is deemed an “emergency,” reasonable measures include “contacting police, fire, or emergency medical personnel.”

The court implied that universities have no duty to affirmatively prevent suicide; instead, the limited duty extends only to taking “the reasonable measures under the circumstances presented,” and is “time-bound” in the sense that no duty is present if a medical professional has determined that a student is no longer a suicide risk.

This standard leaves open several questions for higher education institutions in interpreting the scope of their duty, including:

  • How far back does “recently before matriculation” go?
  • Should (and may) higher education institutions inquire about students’ prior mental health issues of students directly, or of their prior educational institutions?
  • When will a student no longer be considered a suicide risk after a prior suicide attempt or plan?

Moving forward, the lower courts in Massachusetts may be asked to answer some of these questions to provide further clarity on the scope of higher education institutions’ duties.

Attorneys from Mintz Levin’s Education Industry Group are available to help universities assess their policies and protocols to ensure compliance with this new standard and to address a host of other legal challenges facing educational institutions. For assistance, please contact the author or another professional in our Education Industry Group.

Continue Reading Massachusetts SJC Recognizes Limited Affirmative Duty of Universities to Take Suicide Prevention Measures for Known-Risk Students

Our colleague Patricia Moran wrote an excellent post on our sister blog, Employment Matters. Moran notes that employers should consider changes to their compensation structures that will affect their employee benefit plans. The post highlights several employee benefits issues that employers involved at educational institutions should consider as the December 1 deadline approaches. To read more about these new rules, click here. You can also read about the overtime rules’ impact on educational institutions here.

Please join us on September 29th at 1 pm ET as we cover the recently proposed 457(f) regulations. This one-hour webinar will offer employers more than just a summary of the rule. It will also offer unique insights on the rule’s impact, cover historical context, and go over the proposed regulations in further depth.

If you have any questions you would like us to address, please email them to me at ajbianchi@mintz.com in advance of the webinar.

We hope you can join us! Register here.

Our colleague Dan Long recently contributed an article to Employment Matters titled, “National Labor Relations Board Grants Student Assistants the Right to Unionize at Private Colleges and Universities” that highlights the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that student assistants have unionization and collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act. This ruling ultimately reversed its 2004 decision in Brown University, which withheld graduate students from unionization rights due to the fact that they were not considered employees under the NLRA. For an in-depth explanation of the Board’s ultimatum, click here.

Educational institutions should be aware of fraudulent request for payments from vendors. The FBI Boston Division identified three incidents over the past month where perpetrators submitted fraudulent transfer authorization forms to divert payments to Boston area colleges and universities.  The perpetrators portrayed themselves as construction companies and sent emails/letters with instructions requesting payments to be made by wire to a bank account.  The requests typically look like they are from a contractor or vendor providing services.  They simulate the logo or email/web site address of the vendor.  For example: Continue Reading Educational Institutions Targeted in Fraudulent Payment Requests

This is the sixth and final installment in a series examining five bipartisan bills advanced by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on June 22, 2016 and approved by the full House of Representatives on July 11, 2016. While unlikely to be taken up by the Senate this year, the bills will help to frame the discussion for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) in the upcoming 115th Congress. 

The original post briefly summarizing all five bills was posted in Education Matters on June 24, 2016.

Introduced by Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), the Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 3179) is intended to improve financial aid counseling standards for students seeking federal student loans. Specifically, H.R. 3179 would replace the current requirement for entrance counseling for first-time student loan borrowers with a requirement for annual counseling. Continue Reading Fostering Financial Aid Literacy in Students: H.R. 3179

This is the fifth installment in a series examining five bipartisan bills advanced by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on June 22, 2016 and approved by the full House of Representatives on July 11, 2016. While unlikely to be taken up by the Senate this year, the bills will help to frame the discussion for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) in the upcoming 115th Congress.

The original post briefly summarizing all five bills was posted in Education Matters on June 24, 2016.

The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (H.R. 3178), introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), would modify consumer information disclosure requirements related to college costs and student characteristics in order to assist students in making informed decisions about where to pursue higher education. To achieve this goal, the bill would: Continue Reading Choice is Knowledge: H.R. 3178

This is the fourth installment in a series examining five bipartisan bills advanced by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on June 22, 2016 and approved by the full House of Representatives on July 11, 2016. While unlikely to be taken up by the Senate, the bills will help to frame the discussion for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) in the upcoming 115th Congress.

The original post briefly summarizing all five bills was posted in Education Matters on June 24, 2016.

The HBCU Capital Financing Improvement Act (H.R. 5530), introduced by Reps. Alma Adams (D-NC) and Bradley Byrne (R-AL), is intended to increase access to capital by Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) by making changes to the HBCU Capital Financing Program which provides low-cost capital to finance improvements to campus infrastructure at HBCUs. Acting as a loan guarantee program to finance repairs, renovations, and construction of critical campus buildings, the program receives contributions from 40 HBCUs and typically offers loans ranging between $10 million and $20 million. Continue Reading Renovating the Past, Constructing the Future: H.R. 5530

This is the third installment in a series examining five bipartisan bills advanced by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on June 22, 2016.  The original post briefly summarizing all five bills was posted in Education Matters on June 24, 2016.

The Accessing Higher Education Opportunities Act (H.R. 5529), introduced by Reps. Joe Heck (R-NV), Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), and Raul Ruiz (D-CA), aims to help students who attend Hispanic-serving institutions access graduate-level and doctoral degree programs in health care.  Colleges and universities classified as Hispanic-serving institutions must have a Hispanic undergraduate full-time-equivalent student enrollment of at least twenty-five percent, among other requirements. Continue Reading Expanding Access and Encouraging Health Care: H.R. 5529

This is the second installment in a series examining five bipartisan bills advanced by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on June 22, 2016. The original post summarizing all five bills was posted in Education Matters on June 24, 2016.

The Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act (H.R. 5528), introduced by Reps. Joe Heck (R-NV), Phil Roe (R-TN), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Mark Pocan (D-WI), aims at helping students make timely financial decisions when preparing for college. The bill seeks to implement reforms to the federal student aid process by ensuring that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) continues to be available to future students, simplifying the FAFSA for student aid applicants, and providing more time for student aid administrators to verify the income of those applying for financial aid. Continue Reading Fear No FAFSA: H.R. 5528