Ethics & Religion
May 15, 2018
Suicide: #2 Killer of Kids
By Mike McManus
is the #2 killer, after accidents, of young people aged 10 - 24, of
those in junior and senior high school and college. More young people
commit suicide than die from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects,
stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease COMBINED.
More than 100 young people kill themselves every week. ONE out of every
TWELVE students attempted suicide in the PREVIOUS 12 months.
The Sunday New York Times put a spotlight on two of those deaths.
Graham Burton hanged himself at Hamilton College in his sophomore year.
The college's president sent a note of condolence, which Mrs. Burton
But then she read her son's journal in which he said he was flunking
three of his four classes, and called himself a "failure with no life
prospects." He had struggled to sleep, missed classes and turned in
assignments late. The college knew of his difficulty, he wrote, but had
been slow to offer help and understanding.
Professors at the college in upstate New York had expressed concerns
about Burton and knew he was in deep distress. More than a month before
his death, his adviser, Maurice Isserman, wrote the academic dean, the
strongest of many warnings: "Obviously what is 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."
However, college officials say they are constrained by the Family
Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law governing
student privacy. Hamilton College cited the law as the reason the
college had not contacted the boy's parents. The law views students as
adults and bars parents from student records - even grades or a
transcript - without the student's consent - though parents are paying
As the NY Times put it, "Colleges use the law not only to protect
students' privacy but also to shield the college from conflict with
Yikes! This law is a major reason for the high suicide rate among
IT SHOULD BE REPEALED.
Sadly, there is no interest among colleges and universities to do so.
The American Council on Education, the largest national organization
representing higher education, has never considered such a step, nor
will it do so, according to spokesman Jonathan Riskind.
However, the headline of the New York Times story was "His
College Saw Despair. His Parents Didn't Until It Was Too Late."
Olivia Kong, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, told an on-call
psychiatrist that she was thinking of killing herself, according to a
lawsuit filed by her parents against Penn, where 14 students have
committed suicide since 2013. Later that day, the girl filed an
electronic petition for late withdrawal from her class, writing, "I have
had thoughts of suicide."
That weekend, she went home to her parents who live nearby. She spoke to
the same on-call psychiatrist, who outrageously told her, "The cost of
an E.R. visit is likely less than cost of funeral arrangements." He
added that she said "she had actually planned to return to campus and
Her concerned parents even visited her to check on her at midnight. The
next morning Ms. Kong walked into the dark tunnel of a commuter rail
station, and lay down on the tracks, and was run over.
"We still feel shocked," her mother said last month. "The University,
they know everything, but they didn't tell us anything."
In the case of Graham Burton, three of his four professors, his adviser
and the academic dead had exchanged emails about his frequent absences.
The three professors submitted four academic warnings.
Clearly, the university should have picked up a phone and called the
parents. Penn's staff should have expressed their concerns to Ms. Kong's
That might have saved two lives.
Mrs. Burtons wrote the college president, "I would have been far more
aggressive in getting Graham the help he needed."
Still grieving more than a year later, the Burtons wrote an open letter
to the Hamilton College community in March. Noting that a second
student's suicide nine months after their son's, they wrote, "We do not
believe the college has done enough in the wake of our son's death to
safeguard other students."
They asked for a mandatory process to notify parents "in circumstances
where a professor, coach, adviser...has concerns about a student's
The school's response? Silence.
These colleges are complicit in the death of many students and should be
sued by parents.
Parents should also try to change the law.
Copyright (c) 2018 Michael J. McManus, President of Marriage Savers and
a syndicated columnist. To read past columns, go to
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