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Diane Dimond: Colleges Are Not Responsible for Your Child’s Well-Being

Across the nation, parents are in the process of either welcoming their college kids home for the summer or making preparations to send them off to college in the fall. Some will be letting go of their children for the first time, excited and anxious about the next chapter of life. Let this be a wake-up call for those parents who believe the school will keep them informed if anything goes wrong with their kids. It probably won't.

Thanks to a federal law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, colleges and universities are under no legal obligation to tell tuition-paying parents anything about their child, not even if their child is having a serious mental meltdown. Institutions of higher learning share a basic philosophy that students are adults. And FERPA is invoked as the reason to keep education records private. Parents often are baffled that they cannot get information about their child — not even their grades — unless and until the child signs a written consent form.

In reality, some teens are just not ready to become the master of their own life. High school graduates sent off to far-flung universities are unlikely to fully realize that no one is going to wake them up in the morning or help them organize their time and class load. College professors don't engage in hand-holding but rather expect students to be self-sufficient. After partying hard and missing too many classes, students may come to realize their situation is beyond repair. Admitting failure to their parents can seem impossible. Anxiety, stress and depression commonly follow.

Campus statistics show that the number of college students seeking mental health help has risen sharply in the past few years. Schools try to keep up with demand, but the sad fact is that suicide is a leading cause of death for college-age students, second only to fatal accidents.

This is not a scare tactic. It is a fact.

University faculty and administrators might realize a student is under extreme mental strain, but they are unlikely to call the parents to warn them. They may counsel the student to speak to their parents about their situation, but FERPA guidelines usually cause schools to err on the side of silence. In case after case, parents across the country have been brought to their knees in grief upon learning that their seemingly happy and healthy college kid has committed suicide. Males ages 17 to 24 take their own lives far more frequently than females.

Cases: The body of a University of New Mexico sophomore was discovered in his room at his fraternity house. He had been dead for several days. His mother said he had been suffering from depression for a long time. There is no indication he sought or received mental health care from the university.

A junior at the University of Pennsylvania chose not to confide in her parents but on several occasions told Penn psychological services doctors that she was thinking about killing herself over worry that she would fail one of her classes. Ultimately, the 21-year-old walked into a dark tunnel at a train station and laid down on the tracks. The train operator couldn't stop in time.

At least 14 Penn students have committed suicide since 2013.

A student at Hamilton College in New York was so far behind in his coursework he stopped going to class. Several members of the faculty emailed one another about his decline, but no one alerted the parents. The 19-year-old's adviser wrote the academic dean: "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." The student hanged himself in his dorm room.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently ruled that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was not negligent or responsible for the death of a graduate student who killed himself by jumping to his death in 2009. However, the court ruled institutions have some responsibility to protect their students' lives if an employee reasonably anticipates the student would be harmed without intervention.

Interesting to note, most large public colleges don't track suicides. Mental health groups, including the American Psychological Association, have called campus suicide a mental health crisis.

So, what's a parent to do? Communicate with your student on a regular basis. Set up a weekly Skype or FaceTime call so you can see and hear what's up with your child. Visit often, if you can, and get to know dorm mates and advisers. Get and give cellphone numbers. Ask if the school has a "Students of Concern" list, and if possible, have your child sign a waiver allowing you to be contacted should he or she ever be placed on that list.

Letting our kids go out into the world is hard. Keeping in touch with their innermost feelings shouldn't be.

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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