Brett Sokolow gave the following interview to Chris Hill from MAGNA Publications about an upcoming webinar addressing student suicide.
Q: Most reputable schools don’t want to let fear of legal liability outweigh concern for the student. But it’s a blurry line to keep in focus. How can administrators tell if they’ve crossed it?
A: While the answer requires a lot more complexity than I'll offer here, one good way to keep on the legal side of the line is to utilize interim suspension or voluntary withdrawal when a student needs to get help externally, and try to avoid involuntary separation longer-term unless absolutely necessary. When you have to go that route, only separate the student based on suicidal threats or attempts, rather than on lesser ideation or gestures.
Q: Shin vs. MIT is generally thought to have changed the landscape in the area of student suicidality. Is it possible that, with time, that case will come to seem one exceptional incident, instead of grounds for changing our whole approach?
A: Actually, just the opposite. We've become all things to our students -- we feed them, house them, entertain them, clothe them, provide for their fitness, health, and mental health. The law is actually just catching up with the FACT that we have changed our legal relationship to our students. In ten years, the majority of courts will operate from the principle that colleges are in a special relationship to students, and that we owe them a commensurate duty of reasonable care. Having said that, I don't think Shin or any other case requires us to change our whole approach. We have to ensure that we bring reasonable care to our interactions with suicidal students. I'd like to think that we do that regardless of a legal mandate. In fact, I think one of the lessons of the Shin case may be that MIT tried too hard, rather than that they did not do enough. We need to have some tough conversations on all of our campuses about how and why we are coming to resemble mental health facilities rather than colleges, and whether that is a direction we really want to be taking.
Q: Because colleges and universities are so exposed in student suicide cases, does that justify us in intruding on student privacy, i.e., requesting mental health records from incoming students?
A: Just as we must challenge how far we want to go in providing mental health services, I think there must be a healthy debate on every campus about how to more successfully balance individual rights with the welfare/safety of the community. Prior to Virginia Tech, I think the balance skewed too heavily toward privacy on many campuses, and now we are charged with finding a more successful happy medium. If that means better data mining, I think that option should be on the table for discussion not as a mandate, but as a voluntary sharing option.
Q: How can we establish such a behavioral baseline for each student that we are able to detect significant variation from it? How can we possibly find the time and person-power for such a project?
A: I don't think we can or that we should. I think establishing a baseline for those who are at-risk (e.g., those whose conduct brings them to the attention of a behavioral intervention team) is the best we should be doing now, and then we need to keep tabs at intervals to see if there is a substantial departure from that baseline that causes us concern. A baseline for everyone is neither desirable nor possible. In fact, I think just accomplishing the task of establishing a baseline for only the known at-risk individuals may be overwhelming. As currently practiced, behavioral intervention will overwhelm many campuses. More are hiring full time team chairs and case managers. More are looking to options to mandate assessment externally, and even then are finding that local mental health providers are as overwhelmed as campus resources. We are, unfortunately, well behind the 8 Ball in addressing campus mental health issues. We're scrambling to catch up. Yet, we're still addicted to spending money and time on cameras, text warnings, and door locks, rather than allocating what we really need to the NECESSITY of a comprehensive behavioral intervention capacity. That will change by choice or by tragedy, but it will change.
More on this June 9th webinar can be found at: http://www.magnapubs.com/calendar/319.html