Government looks to clarify privacy policy

University officials are confused about rights to release student information

Steffi Lau, staff writer
Daily Trojan
April 6, 2008

The U.S. Department of Education released proposed changes to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, a federal law controlling the privacy of student records, suggesting that school officials be given the freedom to report information about students during emergencies or when a student appears to be a danger to himself or others.

The proposed changes, released March 24, followed the Virginia Tech shootings last April when student Seung-Hui Cho fatally shot 32 students and himself. Though Cho was known to be mentally ill by several professors, this information was not reported to his parents.

Currently, FERPA does not allow universities to release a student's education records to outside parties, including parents, without the student's written consent. These records include information regarding grades, test scores and disciplinary status.

Under FERPA, universities are only allowed to release directory information, meaning basic information such as names, e-mail addresses and majors.

Though FERPA does allow school officials to share information when a student is considered a health and safety risk to himself or others, the law emphasizes that these exceptions are to be strictly monitored.

"With regard to student health information, students are required to direct who they want to give their information to, so we can only give information out to those parties," said Dana Ahern, director of health information management. "However, if a medical provider believes the student is a serious health and safety risk to themselves or others, the provider has an obligation to ensure the patient is followed up with the appropriate medical care."

After interviewing educational institutions across the nation last year, government officials announced in the Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy that many universities are confused about their rights under FERPA.

The report said that school officials often chose not to disclose cases of student mental illness or safety risk for fear of breaking privacy laws.

The suggested FERPA amendments are intended to clarify that school officials are allowed the flexibility to report such cases, thus providing them more legal protection.

"These regulations have always been there, so the changes are now just clarifying," said Kenneth Servis, dean of academic records and registrar. "If they go into effect, will USC follow the regulations? Yes. Will they change much how we do things? No."

Allyson Umberger, a sophomore majoring in business administration, said she thinks it is necessary for school officials to share information when students are considered a health or safety risk.

"Some students get to a point where they don't know right and wrong and sometimes they need someone to interfere. Especially because parents pay for their education, if students need help and are considered dangerous, the parents should be notified," Umberger said.

"If needed, they can take them out of school and get them help. Otherwise, the students won't help themselves."

People will be able to send comments on the proposed regulations to the Department of Education until May 8. The changes are not expected to be finalized until the fall.

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