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Vest writes to community about Shin family suit

President Charles M. Vest on Monday sent the following letter to the MIT community regarding the Elizabeth Shin case. The letter was sent by email to student, academic and administrative leaders and was distributed to other members of the MIT community via The Tech and the News Office web site.

February 4, 2002

To Members of the MIT Community:

As you probably know, the parents of Elizabeth Shin have filed a wrongful death civil suit against MIT for their daughter's death in April 2000 in an MIT residence hall. The suit alleges that Ms. Shin committed suicide by setting herself on fire and charges breach of contract, medical malpractice, and negligence on the part of MIT doctors, staff, and members of our Campus Police.

It is a sad fact that in today's litigious society, the very individuals who do the most to help our students can find themselves the targets of such claims. We grieve for Elizabeth Shin and try to understand the depth of her family's anguish, but we will defend those at MIT who labored hard and appropriately to help her. We are extraordinarily grateful to them, and the Institute will of course provide them with legal services and our support during the litigation.

A number of people have asked us why MIT has not discussed the case more fully in public. There is obviously much more to the story than what the lawyer and the public relations firm hired by the family are saying in court papers and in statements to newspapers and television. The place for MIT to respond to these unfair and inaccurate allegations is in court, and not in the media. More complete facts will come out as the legal process continues.

That process will allow us to explain the critical need for confidentiality and trust between our students and the MIT staff members who care for them, whether in the Medical Department, the Dean's Office, or the residential houses. The quandary that they face is balancing students' legal and medical privacy rights with the obvious interests of parents in knowing how their sons and daughters are doing. This quandary is worked through on a case-by-case basis by professional judgment of how best to help each student. Such judgments are especially complicated when students insist that information be withheld from their parents as a condition for accepting help. We strongly encourage our students to involve their parents in their lives, and in almost all cases that is what happens.

For now, our response to the media has been a statement issued by Jeffrey Swope of the law firm of Palmer & Dodge, which most press reports have included:

The death of Elizabeth Shin was a tragedy -- for this bright young woman, her family and friends, and all those at MIT who tried to help her. But it was not the fault of MIT or anyone who works at MIT. According to information provided by the family's own lawyer, she had suffered from serious emotional problems that began at least as early as high school.

Many people at MIT had offered as much help and support as they could to her. While MIT regrets the need to do so, it will defend against the claims that have been brought against it and the members of its community who had tried to help her.

In the meantime, I hope you will support those in our community who have been touched most closely by this matter and that you will continue to care for all those with whom you work, study, and live here at MIT.

Sincerely yours,

Charles M. Vest

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