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Reviving “in Loco Parentis”: A Neuroscientific View

by Emily Johns | Fall 2019

In the eyes of the law, college-age students are viewed as adults. However, recent developments in neuroscience reveal that college-age students are in fact much less developmentally mature than adults. College years are a particularly vulnerable time for young people due to the changes that occur in their brains. During this period, they are at risk of developing mental illnesses and harming themselves. This article suggests that, in light of this evidence, universities should assume legal responsibility to protect their students from harm by reviving in loco parentis.

Adulthood legally dawns on an individual when he/she turns eighteen years old and does so with the weight of both legal responsibility and privilege.[1]The term “adult” assumes the processes of growth and development are complete. However, this definition fails to recognize that brain development typically only ceases at age 25, or in some cases at age 35.[2] For this reason, the World Health Organization considers an eighteen-year-old to be an “adolescent” (age 10-19 years) which fits into the broader category of “young persons” (10-24 years old).[3]Throughout the developmental process, the brain undergoes many changes that affect the individual’s thoughts and behavior. This renders typical college-age students less neurologically mature than adults. Data from the Mobile Digest of Education Statistics states that in 2016, 60% of undergraduate students in the United States were younger than twenty-five years old.[4] More than a third of these students are nineteen years old or younger.[5] This means most undergraduate students fall into a vulnerable age group during the entire time they are attending undergraduate institutions.

 

There are many changes that occur in the brains of young people during the maturation process that result in questionable behavior, changes in decision making, and put them at risk for experiencing mental health challenges. Some of the most noticeable changes manifest in gray and white matter, affecting the overall structure of the brain. During maturation, the gray matter of the brain, composed of structures responsible for managing emotion, cognition, and behavior, decreases in volume due to a process called synaptic pruning.[6] The process of synaptic pruning is driven by an individual’s social environment and experiences which are often new and constantly changing as individuals adapt to college life.[7] Yet at the same time, the white matter of the brain responsible for regulating emotion and behaviors through synaptic connectivity continually increases until the end of brain maturation.[8] However, this flux does not occur at constant rates, which means that until full brain maturity is reached, young people’s ability to regulate emotions and behaviors is unreliable.[9] In conjunction with the developmental processes of the brain the environmental changes that one experiences while at college put young people at a greater risk for experiencing mental illnesses like  depression and anxiety.[10]

 

Changes in the brain occur not only on a structural level but also on a chemical level. Even though hormonal changes are generally thought to drive the perceived poor decision-making and risk-taking behaviors of young people, such behaviors are actually driven by chemical changes in the brain which in turn drive hormonal changes. These changes manifest in circuits that use dopamine as their primary neurotransmitter (the brain’s chemical communication signals).[11] Dopamine is associated with learning and reward-seeking behaviors. The dopamine track that dominates during development exerts inhibitory effects on the prefrontal region of the brain responsible for decision-making and planning.[12] “A number of researchers have interpreted these changes in the capacity of the adolescent cortex to act as a ‘brake’ as a basis for the observation that adolescents often exhibit poor decision-making, a greater drive to seek rewards and increased engagement in exciting but risky behaviors”.[13] This imbalance in the dopamine tracks does not resolve until brain maturity.[14] As a result, it is questionable to place the full burdens of adulthood on college-age individuals.

 

With all these changes occurring in the brain, it is correct to assume that things can easily go wrong. Young people have an enhanced vulnerability to developmental damage due to greater hormonal stress reactivity, increased sensitivity to the primary hormone released due to stress (cortisol) and continued brain maturation.[15] As mentioned earlier, this results in young people being at increased risk for developing depression and anxiety.[16] College students experience stress at varying degrees. A study by Harvard Medical School researchers reports that rates of stressful life events were high among college students and associated with mental health issues, mental health diagnoses, and suicidality.[17] It is these types of challenges that lead to the discussion of the role of universities in the lives of students.

 

An effective way of exploring this role is in the form of in loco parentis. In loco parentis literally means “in place of the parent”.[18] This doctrine became institutionalized with Gott v. Berea College, which granted colleges greater authority in taking on a more parental role over the students.[19] In the 1920s, colleges embraced this heightened responsibility to combat an increase in the rate of student dropouts due to the apparent impersonalness of the undergraduate experience.[20] The adoption of this greater responsibility led to many positive changes on campuses across the nation. It drove the creation of mental health clinics on campuses, freshman orientation programs, and diverse curricular tracks to account for students’ abilities and interests.[21]

This role also led to some fraught decisions regarding student discipline and punishment, a factor which was partly responsible for its demise. The application of in loco parentis to the student-university relationship was dismantled by a series of cases in the civil rights era driven by changes in trends of tort liability.[22] Since then, there has been no consistent replacement for the doctrine, leading to great inconsistencies in tort cases involving universities.[23]

However, this failed to recognize that even though it is not official, universities really do stand in loco parentis to their students. Saks explains, “Students in college are in a transitional, insular space; they are protected and nurtured by their families and school. Many live on campus and depend on resident advisors to manage their dorms, are provided three meals a day, meet with an advisor to discuss the classes they will take, meet with their advisor to discuss class progress, and visit health services that are available on campus (rather than having to find and evaluate a doctor independently)”.[24] Yet, colleges are not legally obligated to take care of their students and prevent them from harm. This is rather concerning in light of the neuroscience presented earlier which renders students particularly vulnerable to harm. This is made clear by the ongoing student suicide crisis.[25]

Due to the vulnerable state of their students, colleges should be legally obligated to take care of their students by standing in loco parentis. Gott v. Berea College imposed a duty to protect the physical welfare of their students.[26] This is not too much to ask of universities given what is understood about the brain development of young people today.

 

REFERENCES

[1] Sandra Aamodt, Brain Maturity Extends Well Beyond Teen Years.

[2] Johnson, Blum, and Giedd, “Adolescent Maturity and the Brain.”

[3] Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, “Adolescence | Definition, Characteristics, & Stages.”

[4] “Mobile Digest of Education Statistics, 2017.”

[5]  Ibid.

[6] Østby et al., “Heterogeneity in Subcortical Brain Development.”

[7] Linda P. Rowe, “Understanding the College Student Brain.”

[8] Østby et al

[9] Wright and Kutcher, Adolescent Brain Development, 40.

[10]Leussis and Andersen, “Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Depression?”

[11] Wright and Kutcher, Adolescent Brain Development, 29.

[12] Ibid, 29.

[13] Ibid, 29.

[14] Ibid, 31.

[15] Romeo, “The Impact of Stress on the Structure of the Adolescent Brain: Implications for Adolescent Mental Health.”

[16] Leussis and Andersen, “Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Depression?”, 22

[17] Johanna Younghans, “College Stress.”

[18]In Loco Parentis.”

[19]  Christopher P. Loss, “Institutionalizing In Loco Parentis after Gott v. Berea College (1913).”

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Brittain, “Colleges and Universities”, 715.

[23] Theodore C. Stamatakos, “The Doctrine of In Loco Parentis, Tort Liability and the Student-College Relationship,” 476.

[24] Saks, “College Students with Mental Health Disorders., 335”

[25] Lake, “Still Waiting.”, 253.

[26] Christopher P. Loss.