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Colleges File Briefs Backing MIT Admins In Shin Case Appeal

By Kelley Rivoire
NEWS EDITOR

Backed by prominent colleges and educational organizations from across the state and nation, two MIT administrators filed a petition Friday in Massachusetts Appeals Court asking for the dismissal of charges against them in a lawsuit filed by the parents of Elizabeth H. Shin ’02, who committed suicide in 2000 while at MIT.

The administrators’ petition argues that the Massachusetts Superior Court made a significant error in allowing charges against the them to persist, an error that could have chilling repercussions for universities across the nation. The petition was supported by three amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs from 15 Massachusetts colleges, eight prominent universities outside of Massachusetts, and eight national educational organizations.

Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Christine McEvoy’s ruling last June that non-clinician administrators could potentially be held accountable for Shin’s suicide contradicts Massachusetts law, and unless reversed, the petition and briefs state, would create a detrimental and untenable environment in universities across the nation.

If administrators are found potentially responsible in cases of students who might harm themselves, the natural outcome will be for them to shrink from liability by avoiding involvement in such cases or to recommend stronger clinical action than might be advisable, the briefs and petition argue.

The two MIT administrators who filed the petition are former Counseling and Support Services Dean Arthur Henderson and Nina Davis-Millis, housemaster of Random Hall where Shin lived and was found to have died by self-inflicted burns in 2000. A list of the universities and higher education groups filing briefs can be found on page 10.

The MIT administrators asked last August for McEvoy’s June 2005 decision to be clarified and reconsidered, a request that McEvoy denied late January without issuing a written discussion. If the appeal filed by the administrators Friday is not successful, the charges against administrators, along with other outstanding charges against MIT Medical physicians, will proceed to a trial set for May 1. The high-profile $27.65 million lawsuit was filed by Shin’s parents in 2002. Charges against the Institute and MIT Police officers, also part of the lawsuit, as well as other charges against the administrators and MIT clinicians, were dismissed in the June 2005 ruling.

In their petition, Davis-Millis and Henderson argue that McEvoy’s decision to allow charges against them to continue to trial violates Massachusetts law, which states that non-clinicians have responsibility to prevent suicide only in cases where they either caused the suicidal condition or the person involved was in their custody, neither of which was true in the Shin case. Furthermore, they write, McEvoy’s contention that a “special relationship” existed between Shin and the administrator and made them potentially liable because they “could reasonably foresee that Elizabeth would hurt herself without proper supervision,” is a “dramatic departure from Massachusetts law.”

But even beyond resolving the questions of Massachusetts law, the ruling has significant implications for colleges facing student mental health problems, the administrators write in their petition. If McEvoy’s ruling is sustained, they write, it will create an untenable situation pitting administrators and clinicians against each other in a battle to avoid liability, resulting in the sacrifice of the best interests of the students. Administrators will be left to choose from two damaging courses of action to evade liability: first, to avoid being knowledgeable about students’ problems, and second to “take the most extreme approach by trying to force students who appear to be at risk to be hospitalized or withdraw from the university” or involve a students’ parents, even though such measures might be detrimental to the student.

As a result of McEvoy’s ruling, the eight national universities write in their brief, non-clinician student life staff members may be reluctant to identify troubled students or to coordinate treatment with clinical staff. “The Superior Court’s ruling puts these caring student-life staff members to an impossible choice: either assuming a duty they are not qualified to fulfill (i.e., preventing suicide), or not offering the level of support they are committed to providing,” the national universities write.

And if administrators begin to shy away from student suicide risks or feel obligated to overreact, it may “drive the suicide problem underground,” as students feel less comfortable communicating with the administrators, 15 Massachusetts colleges write in their brief.

On the other hand, if non-clinician administrators must take action to secure the short-term safety of all suicidal students, the Massachusetts colleges write, they may be forced to violate students’ rights, going against the current trends at universities to grant more privacy and autonomy to students. Moreover, requiring an administrator to prevent a student from committing suicide “would create an almost unlimited number of situations that would likely give rise to litigation.” As a result of McEvoy’s decision, “administrators have been left to act at their peril because they do not know what they are required to do, when they are required to do it, and for how long they must continue to do it,” the Massachusetts colleges write.

The eight national educational organizations filing a brief echoed the Massachusetts colleges’ claims, arguing that the result will be “subjecting at-risk students to the inexpert medical judgment of non-clinicians and subjecting those university administrators staff to the specter of enormous liability meted out by juries acting in hindsight.”

The high-profile Shin lawsuit “does not exist in a vacuum,” has been transmitted across the country, and is affecting colleges even now, the national universities write.

Already, the educational organizations filing a brief write, the Shin case has been cited “as a major factor” impeding the efforts of universities to identify and counsel suicidal students, as administrators fear liability that “they lack the expertise to avoid.” Unless overturned, McEvoy’s ruling will also “signal colleges and universities not to admit potentially unstable students,” the organizations write.

The full text of the petition and briefs can be found at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2006/appeal.html