After Son's Suicide, Parents Learned What His College Knew

Graham Burton's death raises questions about what parents should be told
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted May 14, 2018 10:20 AM CDT
Updated May 19, 2018 10:35 AM CDT
College Called Him a 'Crash and Burn.' Then, Suicide
A stock photo of chairs in a college classroom.   (Getty Images)

"Obviously what's happening here is a complete crash and burn. I don't know what the procedures/rules are for contacting parents but if this was my kid, I'd want to know." So wrote Graham Burton's adviser at New York's Hamilton College to the academic dean. It's a sentence that sums up so much of the sentiment and questioning that followed Burton's December 2016 suicide in his Hamilton dorm room. The school knew he was struggling—professors exchanged emails about his absences, and he was failing all but one of his classes—but didn't inform the parents, who were outraged to belatedly learn about what the school knew and they didn't. The New York Times reports that Hamilton has cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as a privacy-minded law that prevents them from doing just that in the absence of a student's consent.

While the rules allow for exceptions in the case of suicidal students, it's an allowance, not a requirement. The question of where a student's privacy and autonomy should begin and end isn't just one being asked at Hamilton, notes the Times, which cites the even more explicit case of Olivia Kong. The University of Pennsylvania junior committed suicide eight months before Burton did, after at least twice phoning a psychiatrist with the university counseling center who made this note: "Said that she had actually planned to return to campus Sunday and kill self." (The Daily Pennsylvanian reports a suit filed by Kong's parents alleges Kong and those close to her reported her suicidal thoughts to the university nine times.) The Times offers no answers, but it does look at steps suggested by Burton's parents and other students. Read the full story here. (More suicide stories.)

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