The leading university is obliged to pay £ 50,000 in compensation to the parents of a vulnerable student who committed suicide after a senior judge ruled that he had discriminated against her.
In a landmark case that has profound implications for other higher education institutions, Natasha Abrahart’s parents have successfully sued Bristol University under the Equality Act.
Abrahart, a 20-year-old physics student suffering from severe social anxiety, died the day before she was due to take a “horrible” oral exam in front of teachers and classmates.
Her parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart, argue that university failures played an important role in their daughter’s death, and called on the government to meet with them and other parents who have lost children to find ways to improve the care universities provide to vulnerable students.
Speaking in court, Robert Abrahart, himself a retired university lecturer, said: “There are no winners or losers. Natasha is dead and the university’s reputation is ruined.
“Today, 1481 days after Natasha committed suicide on the day of the assessment, which she simply could not do, after years of protests from the university that he did his best to support her, after we fought through investigation and civil court, we finally have the truth: the University of Bristol broke the law and subjected our daughter to months of unnecessary psychological trauma as she watched her grades plummet and her hopes for the future crumble before her eyes. ”
Natasha’s mother, Margaret Abrahart, a retired psychologist-practitioner, said she went to the cemetery to apologize to her daughter before suing the university. “She would have hated that attention,” she said.
Abrahart was one of 11 Bristol University students who killed themselves over a three-year period from 2016 to 2018. Ms. Abrahart said that when she and her husband realized that other students were suffering and others had died, not only in Bristol but in universities across the country, they felt they had to act.
The 20-year-old Abrahart was found dead in her apartment in April 2018, shortly before she was due to attend a presentation to staff and students in the large lecture hall.
Her parents sued the university under the Equality Act for not caring about their daughter’s well-being, health and safety, arguing that it was not enough to help her, despite the fact that staff knew she had a disability and was deeply distressed.
In a verdict handed down in Bristol County Court on Friday, Judge Alex Ralton said: “There can be no doubt that there was direct discrimination, especially if the university knew or should have known that some mental health disability prevented Natasha from speaking.”
He felt that the university had violated its duty to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Abrahart and treated her favorably. The judge noted that “medical experts acknowledged that the main stress factor and cause of Natasha’s depressive illness was an oral assessment.”
Mr Abrahart said his daughter went to Bristol to study a subject she loved.
He said: “She was bright, hardworking, hardworking. In a document we found on her computer after her death, she said: “I like the idea of understanding (or at least noticing) the rules that nature follows.” Natasha would have turned out to be an excellent physicist, if only she had not been discriminated against at the university. “
Abrahart said his daughter has difficulty talking to people she doesn’t know, especially people in management positions. “Waiting for Natasha to take part in the oral assessments was like expecting a wheelchair student to take an exam in a room at the top of a long staircase.”
He said the prospect of her participating in a group presentation in a large lecture hall would be “really awful”, adding: “Instead of attending this session, she committed suicide.”
He said the adjustments his daughter needed to succeed were “so simple, so obvious. It is unbelievable that for the last four years the university has claimed that they were not required ”.
Ms. Abrahart said she felt the university was still not listening, and urged him to apologize. “We very much hope that the University of Bristol will finally pull its head out of the sand and recognize that it is time for change.”
The court learned that a few months before her death, there was a “significant deterioration in her mental health.” In February 2018, she emailed one of the university staffers with the words, “I had suicidal thoughts and I did to some extent.”
Abrahart’s parents stressed that they did not blame individual employees. Her mother said: “However, we blame the university as an institution. We accuse the University of failing to properly train its staff in its responsibilities to students with disabilities and therefore of when they could and should share inside information about students at risk of suicide. We blame the university for the role it played in our daughter’s death. “
The university claimed it was trying to offer Abrahart an alternative to an oral presentation. But the judge noted that “several ideas” about possible adjustments at the university were “passed”, “none were implemented”.
A spokesman for Bristol University said: “Our entire university community has been deeply touched by Natasha’s tragic death. We believe that the staff of the School of Physics worked incredibly hard and diligently to support Natasha, and thanks to their efforts she received specialized mental health assistance from the NHS.
“Our staff’s efforts also included offering alternative assessment options to Natasha to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her lab results to her colleagues.
“Given the significant impact that this decision can have on how all higher education providers support their students, we are carefully considering the decision, including whether to appeal.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted by calling 116 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the United States, the national suicide prevention line is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide hotlines can be found at www.befrienders.org