Mental Health Concerns Lead To New Responsibilities For Schools
This past summer, Americans were shocked by a series of high-profile suicides, including those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. The sad reality is that these deaths are part of an alarming rise in suicide rates across the country. Unfortunately, this public health crisis has tragically impacted school campuses as well.
As a result, states are passing new laws requiring mental health education for students, and courts are beginning to consider the circumstances under which educational institutions – from colleges and universities to independent schools and everything in between – may be held responsible for students’ mental health. Schools are scrambling to catch up with these rapid developments. Within this changing milieu, educators might well wonder what they can be held responsible for in connection with students’ mental health, and what their schools can do to support and protect students with mental health issues.
As one might expect, the answers vary from state to state, but it is important for independent school educators and administrators across the nation to stay abreast of these changes so that they can begin to implement proactive measures on their own campuses.
Recent Legislation On Mental Health Education
As of July 1, 2018, New York and Virginia became the first states to have laws requiring schools to provide mental health education to students. The New York law requires all elementary, middle, and high schools – both public and private – to incorporate mental health and the relationship between physical and mental health in their curricula. The goal of this new requirement is “to enhance student understanding, attitudes and behaviors that promote health, well-being and human dignity.”
The Virginia law, which covers only public schools, requires that mental health be added to the 9th and 10th grade curricula. Interestingly, the Virginia law was proposed by three students, which suggests that student activism may have an impact on efforts to enact protections for student mental health.
Other states have sought to address the issue by requiring mental health screening before students begin the first day of school. Oregon, for example, requires “residential schools” to conduct a suicide risk analysis before a student attends school. Consequently, some schools in Oregon have added questions to their student health forms about suicide risks.
Similarly, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, Florida recently passed legislation increasing public funding for mental health screening, as well as requiring school districts to ask students to report whether they have received mental health services.
We anticipate that states will continue to enact legislation that will heighten schools’ obligation to provide education and resources to students regarding mental health.
This past May, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) held, in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Inst. of Tech., that universities may have a legal obligation to seek to prevent student suicides. In this landmark decision, the SJC held that while MIT could not be held liable for the suicide of the plaintiff (a graduate student), there could be limited circumstances in which educational institutions are responsible for protecting their students from suicide.
Finding that universities have a special relationship with their students, the SJC concluded that a university has a duty to take reasonable measures to prevent suicide if it has actual knowledge of (1) a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while the student was enrolled at the university or recently before his or her matriculation, or (2) a student’s stated plan or intention to commit suicide. Reasonable measures include implementing a suicide prevention protocol, if the institution has one, or, if it does not, contacting appropriate officials empowered to assist the student in seeking proper care. If the student refuses such care, the duty extends to notifying the student’s emergency contact.
While the Nguyen decision is limited to institutions of higher education, the principles it sets forth may equally apply to secondary schools, particularly boarding schools, where the relationship between the school and students is more consistent with in loco parentis. As such, independent schools should take heed of this decision and its potential implications for their responsibility to attempt to prevent student self-harm.
In fact, there are too many examples of similar cases moving forward at the secondary level. This past June, for example, parents in Rockaway, New Jersey filed suit against the local public school district after their sixth-grade daughter committed suicide. The family alleges that their daughter’s suicide was caused by the school district’s failure to respond to months of unaddressed bullying by her peers. Courts have thus far seemed resistant to such claims, but with changes in legislation meant to specifically address issues like bullying and mental health, that could change.
As such, independent schools should regard this moment as an opportunity to proactively address their policies and practices linked to student mental health and, particularly, suicide.
Given this alarming public health concern, coupled with emerging expectations, we recommend that independent schools consider the following steps:
- Review applicable school policies, such as those governing medical leaves, counseling services, and privacy issues.
- Update health forms to include appropriately tailored questions about suicide risk.
- Implement an authorization form that provides the school counselor with flexibility to share information with other school administrators and the student’s parents on a need-to-know basis.
- Ensure that enrollment contracts include provisions that put responsibility on families to share relevant information about their children, including about medical conditions and behavioral issues.
- Review and update suicide prevention and response protocols.
- Review health and wellness curricula.
- Determine what mental health resources are available on (and off) campus and make sure students and their families are aware of these resources.
- Train school employees on how to talk about mental health issues, including suicide.
- Educate the entire community about the school’s resources, policies, practices, and other relevant information.
Schools must be vigilant on these issues to protect not only their students but also the institution. Suicide is a complex and serious public health problem – but it is also one that may be preventable. As such, regardless of whether schools are legally required to, now is the time to act.
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Please contact one of the attorneys in our education practice group if you have questions about any of these issues, or if you would like our assistance in implementing these recommendations.