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Shin Family Considers Filing Suit Against MIT

By Naveen Sunkavally

EDITOR IN CHIEF

The family of Elizabeth H. Shin ’02, who committed suicide by setting herself ablaze in her Random Hall dorm room, has hired a lawyer to investigate MIT’s role in her death.

“[The Shins have] suffered a great loss. They have some questions about how it is Elizabeth was handled by Health Services [at MIT],” said David A. Deluca, a personal injury attorney at Murphy, Hesse, Toomey, and Lehane, which represents the Shin family. “[This investigation] is an effort to answer some of those questions.”

Although the Shins have not yet filed suit, Thomas Henneberry, director of insurance and legal affairs at MIT, said he did know that the Shins have hired a lawyer. According to Henneberry, MIT will only decide on a course of action after the Shins file suit.

It could be a matter of weeks or months before the Shins file, if they choose to do so, Deluca said. Only after time is spent collecting enough information will a “judgement of liability be made,” Deluca said.

Confidentiality a key issue

Deluca said that one of the concerns of the Shin family is the degree to which MIT’s counseling and health services involved them in their daughter’s case. “It’s been difficult to feel that they have been included,” Deluca said.

The New Jersey Star-Ledger reported on April 30 that in the days before the fire, Shin “inflicted cuts on her arm and was heard screaming suicide threats -- yet a school psychiatrist at least twice declined to hospitalize her, and no one from the school called the Shins to say their daughter was in trouble.”

One defense that MIT has raised is that it was obligated by law to protect Shin’s privacy. “MIT is required to maintain privacy under FERPA,” said Henneberry, referring to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.

FERPA, commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, stipulates the conditions under which an educational institution such as MIT may disclose students’ educational records to others. Educational records are defined to include any information directly related to a student with the exception of documents such as private notes, law enforcement records, and employee records.

Deluca, however, disagreed with the argument that MIT is obligated by FERPA to maintain Shin’s confidentiality. “They have taken the position that they are required to maintain confidentiality. I don’t think if she had fallen down the stairs and had been seriously injured that MIT’s response would have been the same.”

Deluca said that he is currently trying to obtain the results of MIT’s investigation into Shin’s death.

Henneberry declined to comment on MIT’s investigation.