Original article no longer available

Boston Globe

 Published on May 21, 2000.

Author(s): David Abel and Daryl Khan, Globe Correspondents

LIVINGSTON, N.J. – Not long before MIT sophomore Elizabeth Shin set herself ablaze in her dormitory room April 10, classmates say, she had shown signs of distress, sometimes sobbing so loudly she kept other students awake.The 19-year-old, known as much for her intellectual promise as her musical grace, was prescribed an antidepressant by the school’s clinic and had been persuaded to start an outpatient mental therapy program.But no one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Elizabeth’s family in New Jersey.

A month has passed and Cho Hyun and Kisuk Shin are still bristling with anger. The anguish of losing their firstborn has only increased as a result of what the Shins describe as a bureaucratic deafness to their appeal for information from MIT, police, and fire investigators.

“This extreme way,” said Kisuk Shin, pausing to swallow, tears welling in her eyes. “It’s just not Elizabeth. It’s not her. It’s not her at all . . .”

“It doesn’t seem real to us,” her husband said.

The couple want an autopsy report, conclusions from the police investigation, and a more satisfying explanation from MIT health officials about what caused the fire that left third-degree burns covering more than 65 percent of Elizabeth’s body.

For MIT, the tragedy puts its officials on the defensive again – it is the university’s third suicide this year and the fifth since 1998 – and forces them to confront difficult moral and legal issues involving students’ rights of privacy as adults vs. parental rights to know about their children’s well-being.

“The difficulty in this case is that [Elizabeth] clearly didn’t want her parents involved – that was one of her specific concerns,” said Robert Randolph, senior associate dean of students. “The question we have been reviewing is whether we should specifically counter the wishes of individuals.”

Until the investigation is complete, the Shins say, they prefer to believe Elizabeth’s attempts to kill herself were a cry for help gone terribly wrong, a self-inflicted injury that never received the proper medical attention. And while they spent the day before the fire with Elizabeth and saw nothing amiss, her parents say the signs were posted clearly enough for someone at MIT to have saved their daughter – or at least to have alerted them to intervene.

“Elizabeth could have been saved, and that’s what makes us so angry,” Kisuk said.

Cho Hyun added: “If parents are kept blind because of no communication between the school and parents, and the school’s not doing a full-fledged job by taking care of students, then there’s a chance of an instance like this repeating.”

Because of confidentiality laws, MIT was not required to notify the Shins about Elizabeth’s condition. But, in similar cases, according to Randolph, the school has notified parents. “The decision is made on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

The housemaster of Elizabeth’s dorm, Nina Davis-Millis, did call the family three weeks before the fire. She told them she had taken Elizabeth to the school’s infirmary, the Shins said, but did not tell them it was because of self-inflicted cuts on her upper arm. Further, in the days before the fire, when Elizabeth could be heard screaming suicide threats in her dorm and was again taken to the infirmary, no one called the parents.

The Shins also never learned their daughter had agreed to start therapy. The treatment was set to begin the day after the fire.

“I have to confess that I have lost a huge amount of sleep over this, thinking about what I said and what I did,” said Davis-Millis, who was a surrogate mother to Elizabeth as the adult supervisor of Random Hall’s 93 students. “But, in the end, I feel I did everything I could.”

Davis-Millis, who has worked as a librarian at MIT since 1985 and has been a housemaster for the past five years, knows well the rigors of MIT. Students, many of whom were at the top of their high school classes, have to learn to live with the stiffer competition and higher standards of one of the world’s elite technical universities.

But she says she believes the best way for students to learn how to handle the pressure is for them to be treated as adults. If Elizabeth didn’t want her parents to know that MIT doctors prescribed her the antidepressant Celexa, that was her choice, Davis-Millis said.

“Of course, there are risks and ethical dilemmas,” she said. “But I admire our system. It treats students like the adults that they are.”

Cho Hyun Shin disagrees.

“The age when they leave for school is 18 and up, but still they are not fully mature persons,” he said. “They’re still a child in a sense.”