Student Privacy Laws May Be Curbed in Response to Shootings
> 3/25/2008 11:03:52 AM

When played on 24/7 news-cycle repeat, isolated acts of extreme violence like the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University may seem like evidence of a widescale societal collapse. They're not, but the fact that unceasing media coverage only exacerbates and sensationalizes the underlying events does not make them any less horrifying. How can a society modify the powers of the law to best counter these tragic incidents? Do our current legal standards grant enough authority to those who would report disturbed students to better ensure the well-being of a school at large?

Some advocate policies as severe as the allowance of concealed weapons on campus, but such lightning-rod "proposals" will most likely go nowhere. Most Americans detect a hint of the fanatical in extreme positions and tend toward more nuanced approaches like those recently laid out by the U.S. Education Department. These new proposals amount to an update of the laws that currently regulate student privacy issues such as the availability of academic and medical records and, more importantly, the power of administrators to bypass confidentiality agreements if they feel their actions to be in the best interests of the student body. The wake of Virginia Tech has been filled with endless "what if's," and these updates could at least pacify a public eager to believe that their children will be better protected.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a 1974 law designed to protect the confidential academic and personal histories of American students from being accessed and transmitted by unauthorized parties, was created with testing histories and sensitive home-life data in mind. Mental health issues barely entered the equation at the time, and medical treatment records were only covered by the law if it they already been approved for release to a third party (officials at a college to which a student had applied, for example). Exceptions existed for emergencies, court orders and "safety and health" concerns, and the specificity of this phrase is the issue of greatest concern for current lawmakers and education advocates. The law has been updated several times, most recently in 2000, and the new changes do not seem, at first glance, to be particularly profound.

According to a federal report filed in June 2007, the college communities' post-VT response signalled widespread confusion over relevant legal standards and their appropriate execution. The legal minutiae of privacy and disclosure issues may complicate a university's ability to identify problematic individuals, and no one wants to tip-toe around problem cases at the expense of the student body's well-being. But any such personal issues must, at all times, be treated with the utmost delicacy. Every case is, obviously, quite different from the last, but officials must have a greater understanding of when they may appropriately report the behaviors of students who they feel may endanger their own health and that of their classmates.

Officials must do everything in their power to ensure the safety of all individuals under their jurisdiction. But false reports regarding students who suffer from depression or instability without posing a threat to anyone else amount to good intentions turned awry, and they could ruin the academic careers of the kids in question. On the other hand, a fear of liability and lawsuits brought by unrightfully "accused" students understandably leaves some professors and administrators hesitant to act in borderline cases. The most important aspect of the DOE's release is that the revised law would create a larger safety net for officials who decide to report their concerns about disturbed and potentially dangerous students to their higher-ups without express permission. And the changes are truly more rhetorical than procedural in nature. As before, an official may only disclose confidential information if he or she feels that there is an "articulable and significant threat" to the health and safety of particular individuals due to the acts of the suspected student. But the revised DOE suggestion reinforces the fact that the reporting official will almost certainly not be second-guessed as long as he or she can demonstrate a "rational basis" for the original report. The meaning of the document has not truly changed, but the refined language will most likely help to eliminate the common fear of legal reprisal if one's report turns out to be less than 100% accurate.

The document contains several other amendments to the FERPA that will mean little to most but prove crucial to others. Under the new act, for example: information could be released to relevant authorities if a student is a sex offender or has been suspected of terrorist activity; all privacy rules would also apply to students who attend only online classes; information about financially dependent students would be available to their parents or caregivers on request (this is largely true at present, but many schools are not wholly aware of that fact). These provisions must also be carefully considered as they will prove extremely relevant in isolated cases, but they don't go quite as far as the "safety net" proposal in assuaging public concern about the potential threats posed by mentally affected students.

While this proposal will not significantly change daily life for the vast majority of the millions attending college in the United States, it will almost certainly lead to greater job security on the part of psychological counselors or other officials debating the importance of their individual student reports. Any staff member should be fired if he or she reports a student for some unfounded reason, be it outright paranoia or a desire to mete out a twisted form of personal punishment. But most such reports are made in good faith by intelligent, responsible professionals who shouldn't need to be overly concerned about the consequences if they have good reason to believe their actions necessary. Lying at the root of the issue is this fact: nearly all college-aged individuals suffering from some form of mental illness do not pose a threat to themselves or anyone around them, but a very few carry with their illness a propensity for violence, and our laws must balance individual privacy with public safety while providing every possible venue for those in authority to ensure that the students who pose a legitimate danger to others can be safely identified and treated. Otherwise the trail of guilt and blame stemming from these tragedies will only continue to grow.  

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