Colleges and suicide threats: when to call home?

Virginia Tech settled a lawsuit after failing to show an eMail from a suicidal student.

The eMail that arrived at Virginia Tech’s health center in November 2007 was detailed and unmistakably ominous. It concerned a Tech senior named Daniel Kim and came from an acquaintance at another college.

“Daniel has been acting very suicidal recently, purchasing a $200 pistol, and claiming he’ll go through with it,” the eMail read, adding details of a reported previous suicide attempt with pills. “This is not a joke.”

By the time Virginia Tech told Daniel’s father, William Kim, about that eMail, it was too late.

A few weeks after it was sent to the school, he spoke with his son for the last time, Daniel indicating all was well and after final exams he’d be home for the holidays.

A few days after that, parked in his car outside a Target store near campus, Daniel fatally shot himself in the head.

“If I’d known, I could have taken him to doctors, get him on medication, make him normal again,” William Kim, who owns a Washington, D.C., convenience store, said in a recent telephone interview, grief still echoing in his voice four years after the fact.

Virginia Tech’s actions were all the more confounding coming just months after the murder-suicide rampage on the same campus by another student, Seung Hui Cho, which had supposedly prompted campuses nationwide to rethink their previous emphasis on confidentiality in treating troubled students.

“Who is going to take better care of him than his parents?” Kim said. “I never had the chance to do anything for him. That’s a terrible feeling.”

In an agreement finalized by a judge last month in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought by the family, the Kims settled with Virginia Tech for $250,000, plus an endowed scholarship in Daniel’s name.

But William Kim also insisted that the agreement include language requiring Virginia Tech to notify parents of a potentially suicidal student unless it documents a reason not to do so.

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