Recent campus incidents have highlighted the importance of effective communication among administrators, faculty, and staff, as well as between campus representatives and students, families, and surrounding communities. Some commentators have argued that these incidents prove the need to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal statute known as FERPA that protects student privacy, in order to permit greater disclosure of information about troubled students. Actually, the current law works well, but colleges and universities need to better understand what that law really provides -- and each institution needs to develop an internal consensus on how to approach the policy choices FERPA allows it to make.
Colleges have worked hard to educate their employees on the importance of protecting student privacy. This effort has been motivated in large part by the need to comply with FERPA. For example, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many campuses had to remind their personnel to protect the privacy of students against illegal disclosures of information motivated not by rational concern but by prejudice and bias many outside academe had against certain international students.
Legitimate interests in student development have also motivated concerns for privacy. Under ordinary circumstances, according college students a measure of privacy -- even (or perhaps especially) from their own parents -- can without question help their development into independent, autonomous adults. FERPA itself actually reflects this period of transition by shifting primary legal control of the student’s records from parents to the student once the student attends a college or university.
In some circumstances, FERPA has been invoked as the reason not to share student information, when in reality the law would permit disclosure but the interests of student development and autonomy weigh against it. For example, FERPA permits but does not require colleges and universities to notify a student’s parents of certain drug and alcohol violations of the institution’s disciplinary code. Many institutions do not notify parents of every incident involving a minor illegally in possession of alcohol, choosing instead to begin with an educational intervention to assist the student in making better choices, and only notify parents in cases of repeated, serious, or dangerous violations.
The decision not to disclose less serious violations is a policy decision, and should be understood and described as such. It should not be held out as a decision required by FERPA. Unintended and potentially dangerous consequences can arise if legitimate policy goals are confused with legal mandates because institutions may then forget that FERPA grants them discretion. It is especially important to remember that FERPA expressly permits appropriate disclosures in times of actual or potential emergency, as well as in various less drastic circumstances in which an individual seeks to communicate sincere concerns for a student’s well-being or the public welfare.
Although FERPA restricts disclosures of information obtained from a student’s records, it was never intended to act as a complete prohibition on all communications. One threshold point that is often overlooked is that FERPA limits only the disclosure of records and information from records about a student. It does not limit disclosure or discussion of personal observations.
In other words, if a college or university employee develops a concern about a student based on the employee’s observations of or personal interactions with the student, the employee may disclose that concern to anyone without violating, or even implicating, FERPA. (Of course, there may be other reasons an institution would not want to, or could not, disclose that concern, and, in most cases, the initial disclosure should be made to professionals trained to evaluate and handle such concerns, such as campus mental health or law enforcement personnel, who can then determine whether further and broader disclosures are appropriate).
Even when information is part of a student’s records and therefore covered by FERPA, the law provides several exceptions that permit appropriate communications under circumstances in which the student or others may be at risk of harm. For example, FERPA expressly permits the disclosure of information from a student’s records “…to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals.”
This exception doesn’t permit indiscriminate disclosures of personal information, but it does set a fairly low threshold of good faith for determining when disclosures are needed to protect health or safety, what disclosures are appropriate, and to whom they may be made. FERPA also permits disclosures, among others, of any information about a student to other college officials with legitimate interests in the information or to the parents of that student if he or she is their dependent for tax purposes; of information regarding the results of certain student conduct proceedings involving violence to the general public; and of any relevant information to other schools where a student seeks or intends to enroll.
The National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) has just published a “FERPA and Campus Safety” Q & A  to provide accurate information about FERPA to campus administrators and others. This document answers frequently asked questions about FERPA and suggests important elements to consider in setting institutional policies. And while advocating compliance with FERPA, it also puts into perspective the critical importance of campus and public safety in today's world.
This is not to suggest that colleges and universities that have dealt with complicated situations and made difficult decisions have done so in anything less than good faith. Nor, certainly, is it to say that concerns for student development and autonomy have no place in the analysis when determining what, when, and to whom to disclose. But institutions should recognize these concerns for what they are -- self-imposed policy constraints, not legal mandates -- and balance them accordingly, and responsibly, against other equally relevant policy considerations such as safety. If we don't, others may well make the choice for us, quite likely without full consideration of the factors that are important to us and in ways that we won't like. It is thus critical that colleges and universities evaluate in advance both their understanding of FERPA and how they will exercise their discretion under it in response to campus incidents.
Nancy E. Tribbensee is general counsel for the Arizona University System. Steven J. McDonald is general counsel at the Rhode Island School of Design.