If you have a child in college, you obviously want to know how he’s doing academically. You want to know about his health, safety and general well-being. After all, you didn’t stop being a loving parent just because your child turned 18 and flew off to college on his own, right? Just don’t be surprised if you call the university or one of his professors and are told: Sorry, pal. We can’t disclose that information to you without your son’s consent.

Game over? Not exactly. It seems that some of our educators need educating here.

As a mother of two sons in college, it’s more than disturbing to hear college faculty announce -- in front of the students, no less -- that they cannot give me any information about my sons without their permission. Citing legal privacy rights for anyone 18 years old or over, the educators say they are legally forbidden to speak with me unless my sons say they can.

The truth is, there are circumstances under which a school can release information to parents -- even without the consent of the son or daughter. But ignorance of those circumstances is widespread, which recently prompted Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to issue guidelines that clarify exactly what information colleges can -- and can’t -- provide the parents of college students.

The Department of Education has prepared a brochure to let parents know the facts. It’s understandable that confusion might crop up in an area where the interested parties are trying to balance safety and privacy, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does, generally speaking, require schools to get written consent from a student before disclosing his or her information. But parents are hardly powerless here. And FERPA also requires colleges and universities to take key steps to maintain campus safety.

“Nothing is more important to Americans than the safety of their children, and the guidance we are making available today will help make ’s schools safer,” Spellings said as she and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff announced the guidelines last week. “FERPA is not intended to be an obstacle to school safety, and the brochures will enable parents, teachers and administrators to safeguard students in our education system.”

According to the new brochure:

When a student turns 18 years old or enters a postsecondary institution at any age, all rights afforded to parents under FERPA transfer to the student. However, FERPA also provides ways in which schools may share information with parents without the student’s consent. For example:

-- Schools may disclose education records to parents if the student is a dependent for income tax purposes.

-- Schools may disclose education records to parents if a health or safety emergency involves their son or daughter.

-- Schools may inform parents if the student who is under age 21 has violated any law or its policy concerning the use or possession of alcohol or a controlled substance.

-- A school official may generally share with a parent information that is based on that official’s personal knowledge or observation of the student.


That last point covers a lot of ground, and is designed to allow a teacher or professor to share information with you about the general well-being of your child. Let’s face it: Decent teachers don’t want to see their new students spiral out of control or become overwhelmed with the pressures of college anymore than you do. The problem is, many of them are afraid to let mom and dad know when they sense a student is having trouble because administrators have misinformed them about the law. It just might be up to you to set the record straight.