GWU Suit Prompts Questions Of Liability

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

About 2 a.m. one sleepless night, sophomore Jordan Nott checked himself into George Washington University Hospital.

He was depressed, he said, and thinking about suicide.

Within a day and a half of arriving there, he got a letter from a GWU administrator saying his "endangering behavior" violated the code of student conduct. He faced possible suspension and expulsion from school, the letter said, unless he withdrew and deferred the charges while he got treatment.

In the meantime, he was barred from campus.

"It was like a stab in the back," he said. He felt they were telling him, "We're going to wipe our hands clean of you."

His response has college administrators around the country taking notice: Nott sued the university and individuals involved. The school violated federal law protecting Americans with disabilities, the complaint argues. The law covers mental as well as physical impairments.

In essence, it says the school betrayed him by sharing confidential treatment information and suspending him just when he most needed help.

In court documents filed this week, the university's attorneys defended the actions taken, denied that Nott was disabled and suggested that his conduct might bar his recovery. And they asked that the charges be dismissed for the individuals named -- mostly administrators and counselors. The university policies might seem impersonal, spokeswoman Tracy Schario said, but they are designed to keep both individuals and the community safe.

Suicidal students have always forced tough calls. But with shifting legal ground, growing threats of lawsuits and increasing numbers of troubled teenagers entering colleges, many administrators are even more worried about how to handle them.

Historically, administrators have not been held responsible for student suicides, said Karen-Ann Broe of United Educators, but recent -- and not yet settled -- cases have thrown that in flux.

At Ferrum College in Virginia, where a student had made explicit threats before committing suicide, a judge said before the case was settled that the college has a duty to prevent suicide if the risk is readily foreseeable. "That's a pretty radical innovation of the law," to hold people with no expertise in mental health accountable, said Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland.

Preliminary and conflicting rulings at other schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have left administrators confused about whether they could be held liable, Broe said.

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