One November day in 2007, an e-mail arrived at the Virginia Tech health center warning that a 21-year-old senior named Daniel Kim might be suicidal.
Within weeks, Kim was dead. And only then did his parents learn of the e-mail.
Four years later, the university has reached a legal settlement with the Kim family that requires school officials to notify parents or guardians when a student is suicidal. The agreement, signed by a Fairfax County judge last month, was disseminated by the Kim family last week.
Colleges don’t routinely call home at the first sign that a student is in trouble. It’s one of the ways college differs from high school: College officials view students as adults, capable of self-governance and entitled to a measure of privacy.
It’s a hard stance for some parents to accept, particularly when a child’s welfare might be at stake.
“No parent should be kept in the dark when their child is thinking of killing himself,” said William Kim, Daniel’s father, who owns a convenience store in the Palisades section of Washington. The family lives in Reston and Daniel attended South Lakes High School.
The agreement between Virginia Tech and the Kims essentially requires the immediate notification of parents of “potentially suicidal” students, unless school officials have good reason to keep quiet.
Kim says his goal was to get that mandate in writing. Few colleges have policies that explicitly require someone to contact the parents of a suicidal student, according to experts on student affairs and collegiate law.
“It wouldn’t be something you’d find in a student handbook,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, an association representing college presidents.
Daniel Kim appeared on the radar of Virginia Tech health officials on Nov. 5, 2007, when a friend e-mailed that Kim was “acting very suicidal recently,” had purchased “a $200 pistol” and was “claiming he’ll go through with it.”
The e-mail triggered a review by Virginia Tech’s Threat Assessment Team and a visit to Kim’s off-campus apartment by the Blacksburg police, a procedure known in counseling parlance as a “wellness check.”
Kim told officers he did not know the person who had sent the e-mail (the sender was, in fact, a friend at another university). He told police he was fine, according to Edward Spencer, vice president for student affairs at Virginia Tech.
As an final, precautionary step, “we went to check whether Daniel had purchased a weapon,” Spencer said. “He had not.”
Three weeks later, authorities said, Kim did purchase a gun. Then he drove his car to a Target parking lot in nearby Christiansburg and shot himself in the head.
Kim’s parents couldn’t understand why university investigators didn’t call them. They were his family, the ones who paid his tuition, the keepers of his permanent address.
“They said it never even came to their mind that they had to let me know,” William Kim said. “They just never thought about it.”
Virginia law requires public universities to notify parents when a health official determines a student might commit “serious physical harm” to anyone, language added after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech by student Seung Hui Cho. Cho killed 32 people on the campus before turning the gun on himself.
But the law doesn’t specifically mention suicide. And it didn’t apply to Kim, because no one at the university had diagnosed him as suicidal. It’s debatable, in fact, whether the new school policy would have applied to him.
“If we get to the point where we determine that a person is, in fact, suicidal, that it’s a danger to themselves, then we notify the parents,” Spencer said. “In Daniel Kim’s case, he was not determined to be suicidal.”
Potential suicides on campus can be complex narratives, fraught with ambiguity. Many more students threaten suicide than attempt it. Suicidal students might refuse aid, might even deny their own suicidal thoughts. Parents can be a help, or a hindrance.
Roughly half of all college students experience “at least one fleeting thought” of suicide, said Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, executive director of the industry association Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Only about 1 percent of students attempt suicide, she said, and the rate of actual suicide is less than one-tenth of that.
Naturally, when a student is suicidal, parents want to be the first to know. But colleges tend to view the student, not the parent, as their primary contact, administrators said.
“Once the kid turns 18, they are legally adults,” said Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University. “You can’t assume a college is going to treat them the same way a high school treats a minor.”
Cornell administrators opened up to parents of suicidal students several years ago with a rule change that allowed them more freedom to contact the family without a student’s permission. Other schools have followed suit.
Federal privacy laws generally forbid such contact without the student’s consent but make an exception where a child’s welfare is concerned. In the past, some universities misunderstood the rules and balked at notifying parents about potentially suicidal students. That changed after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which spawned a national discussion of student privacy. Higher education leaders say the Kim settlement bespeaks a broader trend of colleges becoming more assertive in contacting parents of potentially suicidal students.
“The general direction nationally after Virginia Tech has been toward more parental notification,” said Gary Pavela, a University of Maryland scholar who studies suicide law.
Suicide-prevention experts mostly applaud the way colleges handle suicidal students.
“The fact of the matter is that there are fewer suicides on college campuses, many fewer, than there are in the general population,” said Morton Silverman, senior adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in Waltham, Mass.
Virginia Tech has registered between zero and four suicides annually in recent years, Spencer said, about average for a school of 30,000 students. Total student deaths have ranged from three to 16, with the exception of 2007, the year of the shootings.
Daniel Kim’s parents see a link between that tragedy and their own son’s death eight months later.
Asian Americans number only 5,000 in Montgomery County, Va., where Virginia Tech is located, according to Census data. Kim, raised in the Washington suburbs, might have felt out of place from the start.
After the Virginia Tech shootings, Kim became painfully aware of his identity as a Korean American. He took to wearing sunglasses and a hat. He told his parents he was taunted and punched by xenophobic students, and expressed concern that he looked like Cho, also a Korean American student from Northern Virginia.
“There were a lot of attacks on Korean students after the shooting,” William Kim said. “I think my son was one of the students under attack, and it probably messed up his head.”