Balancing Safety and Student Privacy

New Virginia law requires colleges to turn over student data to police for security checks.
June 21, 2006

Sex offenders who change addresses when attending college can be asked to re-register with their home states as a security safeguard. A new Virginia law, passed this year by the state's General Assembly, will place some of the onus on colleges by requiring both public and private institutions to give the government data about students who they have admitted.

The college reporting requirement was included as part of legislation that deals with sexual predators. Under the guidelines, student databases would be released to the Virginia State Police after a college admits its incoming class but before the students make their final decisions. That way, the state can say it is in compliance with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects only enrolled students.

Six years ago, Congress enacted a law, called the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act, that required sex offenders who already had registered with their states to also notify the colleges of their conviction. The law requires college officials to publicize where and how students and staff members can find information about registered sex offenders on their campuses.

The Virginia law, which takes effect on July 1, is already stirring a classic privacy vs. security debate, with advocates hailing the legislation as an important campus safety measure and detractors calling it an assault on students.

Brett A. Sokolow, a lawyer and president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, which advises colleges on student affairs issues, said he doesn't have a problem with colleges handing over pertinent information to state law enforcement officers. “Schools want to be able to inquire into someone’s history, but we’ve all felt for a long time that placing obligations on colleges to dig is an onerous burden,” Sokolow said. “This seems like a fairly elegant solution, given that police agencies are better equipped to handle the information.”

Robert Lambeth, president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, an association of 25 private institutions, said some of his member colleges are concerned about the costs associated with reporting student data.

He said many of the same college officials expressed concern early in the process. “We were wondering then, and still are now, is this legislation going to have a significant impact?" Lambeth said. "When you are sending a list of admitted students [rather than enrolled students], it doesn’t tell police where the students really are, and that seems to negate the purpose."

According to Lambeth, after lobbying from higher education officials, lawmakers changed the language in the sex offender bill so that colleges aren't required to provide a student's Social Security number; they can turn over another student-specific identifier as an alternative. That, Lambeth said, helped ease some of the concerns.

Terri M. McKenzie, vice president for student and instructional services at Spokane Community College, a campus that has publicly dealt with a student sex offender, said she is concerned about the scope of the Virginia law.

"At every college, we walk an interesting tightrope between providing safety to our students and protecting their privacy. Any time we have a mandate that makes the tightrope thinner, it's more difficult to do our jobs," McKenzie said. "Once information leaves campus, colleges no longer have the ability to protect it under federal law. What happens if police find something on a student's record other than a sexual conviction?"

Police say they do not plan on keeping information about students who aren't on the sexual offender list. But given the recent cases of data theft, some remain concerned about an institution giving up sensitive documents.

“The concern with any type of mass turnover of student data is that it falls into the wrong hands,” Sokolow said. “We’ve seen that the government isn’t adept at maintaining this type of privacy. With thousands of Social Security numbers, as long as they do it in a secure way, it’s not a huge privacy concern for me.”

Many details about how and when the student information will be turned over hasn't yet been finalized, according to Mark Owczarski, a Virginia Tech spokesman. Among the unanswered questions are how colleges will report information on transfer students and waitlisted students, and in what format the police want the information. Lambeth said a major "x factor" is what college officials will do if they find out a student is on a sex offender list. 

"Every institution is struggling with the same ambiguity at this point," Owczarski said. "When there are more details, we will comply with the law to our best ability."

Owczarski said Virginia Tech officials have been told that they have until early 2007 to find ways to comply with the law.

State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat, said that because the bill was never publicly debated on the Senate floor, many of the state's residents remain in the dark about the mandated reporting changes. "You might hear something from families once the information gets out," he said.


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