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Institutions of higher ed back MIT appeal

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Three groups of colleges, universities and national higher education associations filed amicus (friend-of-the-court) briefs in the Massachusetts Appeals Court Friday in support of MIT's request for an appeal of an issue in a court case relating to the death of a student.

The case concerns a lawsuit filed by the parents of Elizabeth Shin, an MIT student whose death in 2000 was ruled a suicide. In 2002, the student's parents filed a lawsuit against MIT, individual MIT psychiatrists and nonclinician administrators, alleging that the university failed to provide reasonable mental health services and that the individuals had a duty to prevent the suicide and failed to do so. The administrators are an MIT housemaster and an associate dean of student life. All claims against MIT as an institution and some of the claims against the psychiatrists and administrators were dismissed last summer.

Schools across Massachusetts and the nation, as well as higher education associations, have been following the case because a summary judgment ruling made last June raised the issue of whether student life staff members, who are not clinicians, have a legal duty to prevent a student's suicide.

The court's June decision determined that administrators who are not clinicians have, or could have, a legal duty to prevent a student's suicide, even when they knew the student was under expert psychiatric care, did not have the student in a custodial situation, and did not cause the suicidal condition. The court determined that a jury should decide the claims relating to duty.

In January, the court denied MIT's motion for reconsideration of this decision. MIT strongly believes that these claims should be dismissed, and on Friday filed an appeal of the trial court's January decision.

MIT's request for appeal asks a justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court to have that court or the Supreme Judicial Court decide the issue now. If MIT's appeal is successful, the remaining claims against the housemaster and dean will be dismissed. If not, they will remain to be resolved in the litigation process.

The 31 schools and associations -- eight national colleges and universities, 15 Massachusetts colleges and universities and eight national higher education associations -- expressed their support for MIT's position by filing the amicus briefs. Their briefs stress the important policy and legal reasons why nonclinician student life administrators should not have a duty to prevent student suicide under these circumstances.

The 15 Massachusetts colleges and universities that filed an amicus brief are Amherst College, Boston University, Boston College, Brandeis University, College of the Holy Cross, Emerson College, Lesley University, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Northeastern University, Simmons College, Smith College, Stonehill College, Tufts University, Wellesley College and Williams College.

The eight national schools that filed an amicus brief are Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Emory University, Stanford University, Rice University, University of Chicago and University of Southern California.

The eight higher education associations that filed an amicus brief are the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

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