Magazine article University Business

An Act Worth Balancing: Privacy and Safety on Today's College Campuses

Magazine article University Business

An Act Worth Balancing: Privacy and Safety on Today's College Campuses

Article excerpt

COLLEGE STUDENTS TODAY are walking around on campuses with their privacy protected and their safety at risk. But the laws and regulations that govern the privacy of student information, including medical and mental health records, also permit sharing under certain circumstances. Those laws should not be put up as roadblocks to student safety.

In fact, the laws actually facilitate student safety. The Federal Education Records Protection Act (FERPA), for example, protects the privacy of student education records while permitting disclosure under a variety of circumstances. FERPA defines education records as "those records, files, documents, and other materials that contain information directly related to a student and that are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution." College students have two very basic rights under FERPA: the tight to access their education records, and the right to the confidentiality of those records.

This does not mean that higher ed administrators can't use their discretion in disclosing student information under FERPA. Discretion is the operative word here. FERPA allows, but does not require, disclosure.


Individual colleges and universities can use FERPA and its exceptions as guideposts--but not as shields against disclosure or as swords toward disclosure. This discretion gives officials the option to disclose information as they see appropriate and gives the college community as a whole the tools it needs for the protection of both its proprietary information and its safety. It's up to officials to determine which action to take in terms of the disclosure decision. FERPA merely opens the door.


Administrators should use FERPA and other laws to facilitate discussions regarding an appropriate balance of safety and privacy for the entire college community. It is also very important that decisions to exercise an exception be made after a careful examination of the specific facts of each situation. Looking at situations on a case-by-case basis forces schools to carefully consider the pros and cons of disclosure, and results in a more thoughtful, reasonable outcome.

The way discretion is used is tremendously important, particularly when it comes to effective intervention in the lives of troubled students. …

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