CLINTON, N.Y. — In the days after her son Graham hanged himself in his dormitory room at Hamilton College, Gina Burton went about settling his affairs in a blur of efficiency, her grief tinged with a nagging sense that something did not add up.
The next day, Burton accepted condolences from the college president, and assured him “how right a choice Hamilton was” for her son.
But two weeks later, she read her son’s journal and everything changed. Graham Burton, a sophomore, wrote that he was flunking three of his four classes and called himself a “failure with no life prospects.” He had struggled to sleep, missed classes, turned in assignments late. The college had known of his difficulty, he wrote, but had been slow to offer help and understanding.
“Would you care to shed some light on this?” Gina Burton asked in an angry email sent at 2:53 a.m. to the academic dean, with copies to the president and the dean of students. “If this is what drove Graham, I don’t think I’ll be able to cope.”
Her discovery set off a wave of pain and soul-searching but also a campaign to strip away some of the veils of confidentiality that colleges say protect the privacy and autonomy of students who are learning to be adults.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death, after accidents, for college-age adults in the United States. The number of college students seeking treatment for anxiety and depression has risen sharply over the past few years, and schools have in turn stepped up their efforts in mental health research and intervention. Even so, families have continued to put pressure on them to take greater responsibility for students’ well-being.
Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Monday that MIT could not be held responsible for the 2009 suicide of a graduate student. But the court ruled that a university might be liable under limited circumstances, such as when a student expressly tells college staff members of plans to commit suicide.
“I think everybody should be on notice that schools can’t hide their head in the sand,” a mental health lawyer, Carolyn Reinach Wolf, said. “They can’t say: ‘Students are on loan to us.'”
Professors at Hamilton College, in upstate New York, had expressed concerns about Graham Burton for much of the fall term and knew he was in deep distress, according to a report on his death that was shown to The New York Times. More than a month before his death, his adviser, Maurice Isserman, wrote the academic dean the strongest of many warnings: “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.”
Isserman struck at the heart of what mattered to the Burtons: whether the college had a responsibility to tell them what it knew.
College officials say they are constrained by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law governing student privacy, in reaching out to parents. A Hamilton official cited it at a recent student assembly meeting, when students asked about the Burtons’ contention that they had not been told of their son’s troubles. The law views students as adults and bars parents from even the most basic student records, like a transcript, without their child’s consent.
There are exceptions: Colleges can release any student record to parents if the student signs a consent, if the college knows that a parent claims the child as a dependent on tax forms, or in a health or safety emergency. Even so, federal law allows colleges to use their discretion. They are allowed, but not required, to release the records or let a family member know if a student is suicidal.
Colleges use the law not only to protect students’ privacy but also to shield the college from conflict with parents and other forces in society, said Brett Sokolow, a risk management consultant to universities.
“There is an ethos of maintaining privacy and confidentiality — which sometimes is very beneficial,” Sokolow said. “But when somebody’s dead, do you wish you’d worked to maintain their privacy, or do you wish you’d worked to keep them alive?”
— Warning Signs
Burton spent hours playing guitar and talking about life with his close friend, Max Phillipps, who lived across the hall their sophomore year. Phillipps recalled that Burton seemed extraordinarily creative at the time, writing plays and short stories and filling journals. But he also wore the same clothes every day and had erratic sleeping habits. “His expression was pretty melancholy,” Phillipps said. “I had to work to make him laugh.”
In hindsight, Phillipps added, “There were definitely signs.”
Some professors thought so, too. The report on Burton’s death showed that three of his four professors, his adviser and the academic dean had exchanged emails about his frequent absences from classes. The three professors submitted four academic warnings.
The youngest, Anne Feltovich, a Latin teacher in her 30s, was the most persistent and appeared the most empathetic. “Dear Graham,” she emailed him on Oct. 24, “You’ve dropped off the radar. How are you doing?” Later, she offered to give him an incomplete and to tutor him in Ovid and Livy by Skype over break. “Sending you support and strength from afar,” she wrote.
His adviser, Isserman, at first dismissed Burton’s inattention to his studies as “his MO, I’m afraid.” But he soon escalated his warnings.
On Nov. 2, Isserman wrote to the academic dean, Vivyan Adair, that he had not been able to reach Burton, who he said was going through “a complete crash and burn.” About two weeks later, Burton wrote to Feltovich that he had been meeting with the dean.
Asked about Burton this past week, Adair said in an email that she had urged him “to speak to his parents about his academic issues and to seek help from the counseling center if he felt depressed.”
But she said that when she met with him, he appeared engaged in college, in his writing and in his social life. “My job was to work with him to resolve his academic issues, which I did,” Adair said. “If I had perceived that he was at risk, I certainly would have taken additional steps.”
The report said there was no policy or practice that prevented staff from contacting the parents. But, it said, “The pervasive impression of faculty and staff is that the college’s overall philosophy is to treat students as adults and allow them to take ownership of any issues they are facing.”
At about 1:30 a.m. on a day during finals week, Phillipps came back to his dorm from studying and found Burton wanting to talk. But Phillipps had a final exam in the morning and asked if it could wait.
When he returned from his final, at about 11 a.m. Dec. 14, he opened Burton’s door and found him hanged by his belt.
“Every day of my life I think about it,” said Phillipps.
The Burtons were not totally unaware. In her emails to the college after his death, Burton said that she had made doctor’s appointments to look into his insomnia and that she had been talking to him about visiting the Amen Clinics, a psychiatric center, for brain scans. But she said he had talked about his classes and was looking forward to the future: going on a family ski trip, buying a used Subaru, getting a summer job.
The report recommended that the college adopt a more centralized case management system for students in distress. It also recommended “workshops on empathy.”
College officials declined to comment on Burton’s death but said they had taken steps recommended by the report. They created a position, the associate dean of student support, filled by someone with mental health credentials. Faculty members are being trained to help recognize students in distress, with a separate committee following up with students of concern. The college also formed a coalition of faculty, staff and students, led by the associate dean, to try to reduce stress at the college.
Despite the changes, faculty members still are expected to contact a dean, not parents directly, when they are concerned about students, Terry Martinez, the dean of students, said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.