Laws Restrict Actions Against Troubled Students

Federal laws generally prevent universities from placing students on involuntary medical leave for mental illness and from informing their parents of their problems without consent, the New York Times reports.

In the case of Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui, the school had failed in its effort to have the student committed to a mental institution, the Times reports in a separate story.

A counselor at a mental health agency had recommended forced commitment. A judge instead ordered outpatient treatment after Cho’s initial evaluation at a psychiatric hospital, the newspaper says.

For a forced commitment, Virginia law requires proof that an individual is in imminent danger of harming himself or others, or is unable to care for himself.

Universities with students who have mental health problems face a catch-22, the newspaper says. They may be liable for failing to prevent a murder or suicide, on the one hand, and liable for expelling a troubled student on the other.

In one case, a Massachusetts state court allowed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology brought by the parents of a student who killed herself. The case later settled.

Other cases that settled sought damages when students were suspended or barred from a dormitory room because of mental health problems.

Supporters of tougher gun control laws say Cho’s case shows a need to include more mental health information in criminal background checks, the newspaper reports in another story.

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