Student suicide is one of the
leading causes of death on college campuses across the nation, and statistics
indicate a rise in student suicide and suicide attempts at this particular time
of year. University Health Services Counseling Services Director Bob McGrath
suggested in a Herald article last week ("Attempted Suicide Reinforces UW
Support Services," Dec. 5) that this may be because the end of the semester can
be a stressful time for students. Every college has health and counseling
services aimed at helping at-risk students, but unfortunately some students
fall through the cracks.

Even though the resources are
available to help those who may be in a state of mental crisis, students do not
always take advantage of them. The university cannot force a student to get
help — the student must seek help on his or her own. The most effective way to
encourage students struggling with medical or mental health issues is to be
able to assure them the help they seek and the information they share will be
kept private. Colleges are torn between respecting the privacy of students with
mental health issues and protecting these students, and possibly others, from
potential violence.

Should colleges have a
responsibility to inquire about, and share, information with student's families
regarding a student's mental health in order to protect students on campus?
Should colleges be held responsible for the consequences of the dangerous
behavior of students if such behavior might have been predicted were health
information shared between the school and a student's family?

When considering specific cases,
such as the massacre at Virginia Tech in April, or last week's murder-suicide
by a teenager at an Omaha shopping mall, these become difficult questions to
answer. We may be tempted, given the deadly consequences, to answer yes to
these questions, but we should also realize the potential consequences of
invading a student's privacy.

The Family Educational Rights and
Privacy Act is a federal law that limits the sharing of education records. It
gives specific rights to parents regarding their children’s records. These
rights transfer to the student when he or she turns 18. FERPA applies to
education institutions that receive federal funding. Generally, therefore,
education records cannot be shared with a student's family without a student's
written consent. Under FERPA, information — including student medical
information — can be shared only if the student’s life is in danger, but this
is a difficult judgment call. When is it justified for the college to share
with the student's family the suspicion that a student is in crisis?

If the decision is made correctly,
then that information may save a life; but if it is made incorrectly, this can
upset the student and break the trust that enables the health service to be
effective in the first place. The health service must respect students’ right
to privacy or students will not use the health service, even in emergency
situations — which could then cause further harm.

No one can predict with absolute
certainty the future actions of another person, and colleges cannot invade a
student's privacy based on this uncertain judgment call. However, what colleges
can do is provide the resources and encourage students to get help to minimize student
suicide and violence. Furthermore, colleges have not been held liable for these
incidents, but that does not mean student suicide should be given lower
priority. Colleges still have an obligation to put forth their best efforts to
prevent student suicide and violence even if the obligation is not a legal one.

Marissa Rubin (mkrubin@wisc.edu) is a sophomore majoring in journalism
and political science.