Lawsuit alleges Penn missed opportunities to prevent student’s suicide

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Zhao Kong (center), the mother of Ao

Zhao Kong (center), the mother of Ao "Olivia" Kong, begins to sob as attorney Carol Nelson Shepherd describes the days leading up to her daughter's suicide. Xianguo Kong, Ao's father, is pictured at right. Ao Kong was a junior at Penn's Wharton School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The family of a University of Pennsylvania student who committed suicide two years ago is suing the university, claiming that it did not do enough to prevent their daughter’s death.

Philadelphia native Ao “Olivia” Kong was a junior at the Wharton School when she died on April 11, 2016, after being struck by a train on SEPTA’s Market-Frankford line.

The lawsuit, filed a day before the second anniversary of Kong’s death, alleges that staff in Penn’s counseling center failed to take necessary action after Kong told them and other university employees multiple times that she was thinking about killing herself.

Sitting beside Kong’s tearful parents at a press conference Tuesday, a lawyer for the family said they were filing the suit to get the university to take responsibility for their daughter’s death and address what they described as  systemic problems in dealing with mental health crises on campus.

The lawsuit aims “to shine a light on the really dreadful job that one of our most elite local institutions, the University of Pennsylvania, has done on the critical issue of student suicide,” said Carol Nelson Shepherd of the Philadelphia firm Feldman Shepherd.

Citing notes in medical records made by the counseling center staff, the suit alleges that Kong told university employees several times that she was having suicidal thoughts. On two occasions, according to the suit, she directly told counselors she had thought about specific plans for following through with killing herself. Altogether, lawyers for Kong’s family said university employees received nine reports of her suicidal thoughts — from Kong herself or others on her behalf.

Kong had two phone conversations with one staff psychiatrist whom she told she was having suicidal thoughts. The second occurred just two days before she died, the suit alleges. According to documents filed in court Tuesday, the psychiatrist’s notes about the call indicate she told him that she planned to return to campus the next day to kill herself.

“He took no steps to provide any kind of in-person evaluation, any kind of treatment or medications,” Shepherd said. “He did not say, ‘I’m going to send an ambulance, we’re going to pick you up, and we’re going to take you to the ER.’ ”

 

Ao "Olivia" Kong in an undated family photo.
Ao “Olivia” Kong in an undated family photo. (Feldman Shepherd)

Shepherd said Kong told the psychiatrist she thought she might need to seek emergency treatment at a hospital, but she was concerned about the cost of a visit. The psychiatrist’s notes, Shepherd said, indicate that he told Kong “the cost of an ER visit would be less than the cost of her funeral.”

Instead of urging her to get emergency treatment, court documents stated, the psychiatrist advised Kong to speak with her parents about her condition and suggested that she could call the counseling hotline again or dial 911 in an emergency.

Shepherd said Kong had also met with a social worker at Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services — known as CAPS — in the week before she died. After hearing more about Kong’s suicidal thoughts, the social worker scheduled a follow-up appointment at CAPS for April 11 — the day she took her life.

Shepherd said Kong had been struggling with academic pressures and a heavy courseload, and she was having difficulty withdrawing from one class where she had fallen behind.

The lawyer said that 14 students have committed suicide on Penn’s campus since 2013. The high rate of suicide on campus in recent years has prompted student demonstrations and demands for more action from the university. Penn convened a task force to address the issue in 2014 that ultimately issued some recommendations in an eight-page report. Shepherd, however, contended that it hadn’t taken effective measures to address student suicide.

Kong’s parents declined to take questions from reporters Tuesday. They issued a statement that the university  “did not have a structure and procedures in place to prevent this tragic outcome.”

A Penn spokesman declined to comment, saying the university typically doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

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