Public-records research homework: Does your college expel suicidal students?

While colleges are free to remove students from campus if they present a realistic threat to harm other people, it’s less clear what they can — or should — do when a student’s only danger is to himself.

The U.S. Department of Justice has said that a college can violate a student’s civil rights by removing him for exhibiting suicidal tendencies. But that hasn’t stopped many dozens of colleges from maintaining and enforcing “mandatory withdrawal” policies that require a student who threatens or attempts suicide to leave campus immediately and get a clean recommendation from a psychiatrist before returning.

Mental-health experts question whether such policies — which may remove a struggling student from his most reliable source of social support, medical care and counseling — actually worsen the risk of a tragic outcome.

Today’s Inside Higher Ed reports on the frustration of colleges seeking clear direction on when it’s permissible to remove a potentially dangerous student. In 2010, the SPLC conducted a nationwide public-records audit of colleges’ mandatory withdrawal policies, and found a surprising number of them “buried in plain sight” inside student handbooks.

With this issue attaining renewed national attention, it’s timely for student journalists at every college to review their student handbooks and ask whether their own colleges have a practice of removing suicidal students — and to report on how many times those policies have actually been applied.