April 24, 2008
Last week the nation marked the first anniversary of the tragic Virginia Tech shootings that took the lives of 32 students and faculty and wounded 17 others. Other school shootings have occurred since Virginia Tech’s, and policymakers and school officials are trying to prevent this type of violence from happening again. But while lawmakers and school officials have good intentions, some of the current and proposed measures sacrifice student privacy and well-being for a superficial feeling of safety.
Most recently, the U.S. Education Department’s Family Compliance Office has proposed changes to the law that protects the privacy of students’ education records. While the proposed regulations to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) are meant to clarify the law, the changes could give more leeway to schools that want to disclose records without consent in cases of “health or safety emergencies.”
The proposed changes to the FERPA regulations along with bills dealing with student privacy that have been signed into law in states across the country could ultimately lead to an increase in discrimination against students seeking help for any kind of mental illness, including depression. While students at colleges and universities have a history of being legally considered adults and independent of their parents, now officials have free reign to call parents, as if the students were back in high school. Students have lost their ability to sue over disclosure of medical records and face eviction from housing, or even expulsion from school, if their mental illnesses become public knowledge. In effect, well meaning efforts to prevent future school shootings have ultimately resulted in a huge loss in civil liberties for young people.
One of the major problems according to Sandi Scott Duex, the director of residential life at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, is that the government hasn’t strictly defined when it is appropriate to contact a student’s parent in cases dealing with mental illnesses. “They still don’t define what a ‘health or safety emergency’ is, and they never have,” Scott Duex said. The proposed changes to FERPA would also eliminate repercussions for university or college officials who disclose records without a student’s permission. Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. Tim Kain signed a bill, H.B. 576, granting immunity from any kind of lawsuit resulting from the disclosure of medical records, unless the official is proven to have acted “in bad faith.”
FERPA currently reclassifies health information held by an educational institution as “education information”; this means that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a set of regulations that typically prevent health professionals from revealing medical information to anyone other than the patient, does not apply. Health professionals that work for educational institutions are no longer bound by health privacy laws. “There’s no legal right to private action under FERPA. If I screw up and release someone’s records, I can’t be sued,” Scott Duex said.