- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

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 last 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. The new proposal would remove that mandate and instead specify that a school can release information to appropriate parties, including parents and law enforcement, if it determines there is an “articulable and significant threat” to the health and safety of a student or others, Mr. Rooker said.

“If, based on the information available at the time of the determination, there is a rational basis for the determination, the Department will not substitute its judgment for that of the educational agency or institution,” the proposal stated.

“It’s clearly intended to provide a greater degree of flexibility to institutions,” said John Lowery, an associate professor of educational studies at Oklahoma State University. He called it the “most significant aspect” of the proposal.

The proposal also would clarify that current law lets school officials share student information freely with parents if the parents claim the student on their taxes as a dependent. Mr. Rooker said such information “runs the gamut” from grades to a student contemplating suicide.

Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said parents will gain the most from the new proposal. “That’s where the most impact’s going to be,” she said.

But Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, said there’s a chance some administrators could abuse the emergency-situation authority. “It all depends on how it’s used,” he said, adding that the increased parental access is “definitely something that our members would have concerns about.”

FERPA applies to any school that receives federal funds. People can send comments on the newly proposed regulations to the Education Department until May 8. Mr. Rooker said those regulations probably won’t be finalized until the fall.

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