Clarifications Eyed to Laws on Student Privacy; Data-Sharing in Crises at Issue

Article excerpt


Department of Education leaders yesterday sought to clear up confusion about student privacy laws, suggesting new rules to clarify when and how school officials can share student information and giving schools more flexibility in determining whether a situation is a health or safety emergency.

The effort stems, in part, from privacy-law confusion revealed after a disturbed student gunned down 32 persons on the campus of Virginia Tech in April and then took his own life.

Government officials interviewed educators, law- enforcement officials, and others nationwide and issued a report that found "confusion and differing interpretations" regarding privacy laws that often results in school officials not sharing information they can release.

The Department of Education's proposed update of rules governing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) is part of an ongoing effort to alleviate that confusion. Among other things, the proposal would give schools more flexibility and guidance in determining what constitutes an emergency situation, under which school officials can lawfully provide others with information about a student.

"Institutions have latitude here," explained LeRoy Rooker, director of the Education Department's Family Policy Compliance Office. After the Virginia Tech shootings, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings "wanted to make sure we had this [section of the law] as clear as possible," he said.

Under FERPA, schools must obtain written consent before disclosing a student's information to outside people - with a few exceptions. Among them, current FERPA regulations allow a school to disclose student information to appropriate parties without consent in an emergency, if it's necessary to protect the health or safety of that student or others.

The current standard mandates that this be strictly followed, but provides little guidance on how. …