The parents of former Wharton junior student Olivia Kong, who died by suicide in April 2016, are suing the University for allegedly failing to respond to Kong's pleas for help in the weeks leading up to her death.
The lawsuit, filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on April 10, argues that Kong told several University officials in the days leading up to her death that she was having suicidal thoughts. Instead of providing Kong immediate help, the University sent her from one administrative department to another.
"After Olivia and others reported her suicidal ideations, and even plans, 9 times to University of Pennsylvania professionals, feeling like she was not being heard, and nothing was being done," the lawsuit claims, "Olivia walked to the SEPTA Station at 40th and Market Streets."
Kong's parents, Xianguo Kong and Zhao Lin, are being represented by Carol Nelson Shepherd of Feldman Shepherd law firm of Philadelphia, which held a press conference on the afternoon of April 10.
Shepherd said at the press conference that Kong had visited Student Health Services, had two extensive telephone conversations with the counselor on the emergency phone line at Penn's Counseling and Psychological Services, and spoke with several other officials, including CAPS staff and academic advisors, about her thoughts of suicide.
In some of these conversations, Kong discussed concrete details, such as concern over the cost of hospitalization if she had sought it, and possible methods and times of suicide, which Shepherd said should have indicated that gravity of the situation.
"Penn is responsible for all of these individuals and Penn is responsible for the systems that they set up that failed the student to evaluate her, treat her, and save her life," Shepherd said at the press conference.
The Kongs are the third group of individuals in the last three years to sue the University for being negligent towards a student who later died by suicide.
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy said in an emailed statement that the University does not comment on pending litigation.
Kong's death raised concerns among members of the Penn community about the way the University reported the death by suicide. Students were first notified of Kong's death by an email from the President's Office, which was sent to all undergraduates and did not include Kong's name.
A subsequent email to Wharton students, which was sent before her death was officially ruled a suicide, included Kong's name and several details about her life, but described the death as an "accident."
Since then, the administration has taken steps to work more directly with students involved in the postvention process of a student's death.
Following Kong's death, the University also reconvened its mental health task force to address the ongoing progress the University has made to address mental health on campus. However, this task force concluded last year that, apart from continuing ongoing initiatives, no significant policy changes were needed on Penn's campus.
Kong's parents are not the first individuals to allege that Penn was negligent towards a student who later died by suicide.
Former College junior and track star Timothy Hamlett died by suicide during the 2015-16 academic year, prompting his mother to file a lawsuit against the University and her son's former track and field coach in May 2017. The lawsuit alleged “gross negligence and a breach of the duty owed given the special relationship between a student-athlete and his coach.” The lawsuit was dismissed in December 2017.
Earlier, in 2015, Penn was sued by Sujata Singh, the mother of Arya Singh, a Nursing student who died by suicide in 2013. Her complaint, which listed Amazon as a defendant, referred to alleged "unsympathetic, hostile and at times vindictive" actions on the part of members of the Penn administration toward Singh. The case was settled in January 2017.
This is a breaking story that was last updated at 2:29 p.m. on April 10. Check back here for updates.
Deputy News Editor Manlu Liu contributed reporting.
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