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Thursday, December 10, 2009

In loco parentis or parentis absentia

Okay, my Latin is beyond rusty, I know. However, we seem to be receiving mixed signals about the role of the university in the personal lives of our students. Many campuses have banned smoking, ostensibly to protect the health of their students. Lincoln University proposed holding degrees hostage to weight loss, although the school dropped the proposal after considerable push-back.

Today comes along a story that many schools are expelling students who seem to have suicidal thoughts/tendencies, essentially having a "zero tolerance" policy toward suicide. I agree that suicide is not a good option for most if not all people but I wonder if kicking students out of school just because the school determines the student is potentially a danger makes a lot of sense.

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It makes no sense if the intention is to discourage suicide. I know more than a few people who attempted suicide as a result of academic set-backs. Some attempts were fatal; some were not. None of these attempts could have been discouraged by the threat of academic recourse because each individual fully intended to be dead after the attempt and, thus, not have to face any consequences, including academic.

I find it ethically pernicious that a school would expel students who it *suspected* may commit suicide. First, it has no way to make a positive determination that a student will, in fact, commit suicide. A policy like this would lead to significant type I error. Second, after being expelled, someone who already demonstrated suicidal tendencies is much more likely to attempt suicide.

I would go as far as to say that if a school expels a student for displaying suicidal tendencies and the student kills himself or herself, then the school should be held liable for wrongful death. This is comparable to tazing someone for having a heart condition or denying the sale of insulin to someone for having diabetes.
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