Colleges and suicide threats: when to call home?

Why the hesitation to involve family? The data also show why colleges worry so much about any action that might discourage troubled students from seeking help: 80 percent of students who commit suicide, like Kim, never participated in campus counseling services.

“I’m in favor of notifying parents,” said Carolyn Wolf, a mental health lawyer who advises college officials. “These are kids who are 18, 19, 20 years old, they’re legally adults, but I don’t think they’re developmentally adults at that point. Parents are much more involved in kids’ lives these days for a longer period of time.” Still, she said, “you need to give some amount of flexibility to those people who are in the trenches.”

Wolf advises parents to remember that FERPA, the federal education privacy law, has clear exceptions for risks to health and safety, as do state laws.

HIPPA, the federal medical privacy law, generally doesn’t apply to colleges. And while counselors and psychiatrists may be unable to discuss a student they are treating, those rules don’t apply to anyone else on campus; faculty and administrators can call home about behavioral issues.

And, Wolf points out, nothing forbids counselors from listening.

Parents “can call a counseling center and say, ‘I think this meets one of the (confidentiality) exceptions, but even if you can’t tell me things, you need to listen to me give you history, give you information,'” Wolf said.

William Kim’s lawsuit against Virginia Tech contends the school broke its own protocol, which called for any student who had made even a gesture about suicide to see a psychologist on call immediately. Instead, officials discussed the eMail the morning they received it, and dispatched a local police officer to Kim’s off-campus residence.

The officer reported Kim “appeared to be OK” and that Kim said he didn’t know the student who had sent the eMail. That student appeared to know Kim through online gaming. The university also checked to see if Kim had purchased a gun. Apparently he had not, but did so a few weeks later.

Confidentiality laws would not have prevented Virginia Tech from contacting Kim’s parents because he was not a patient of the university counseling center. But university officials decided not to reach out. Having received no other unsolicited indications from family, acquaintances or teachers that Kim might be suicidal, they concluded he was not a danger.

Ed Spencer, Virginia Tech’s vice president for student affairs, acknowledged that the university has wide latitude to contact family if a student is suicidal, and said it would do so if it made that determination.

But, he said in a telephone interview, Daniel Kim “was never found to be suicidal by anyone here at Virginia Tech or by the Blacksburg police.”

Regardless of the detailed plans reported in the eMail, altogether “there was nothing that added up that he was at all suicidal,” Spencer said. He added experts the university consulted backed up that view and “were surprised we went the extra mile” of checking on the gun.

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