College Students and Privacy: Do Your Homework

Rebecca Hagelin
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.

Schools must also come clean with parents about their safety records and security procedures. Indeed, under the Clery Act, federal law requires it and mandates certain penalties, including stiff fines and the loss of financial aid, if schools fail to comply. The new brochure notes that colleges must “provide timely warnings of crimes that represent a threat to the safety of students or employees and to make public their campus security policies.”

Why would such a law be necessary? Because college officials are naturally reticent to say anything “negative” about their schools. All public information is carefully choreographed to present a perfect image. But no place on earth is totally crime-free, and university campuses are no exception. In fact, they’re often worse than many suburban neighborhoods. According to Security on Campus, a group I had the privilege of working with in the 1990s:

Surveys by rape crisis centers have concluded that rape and sexual assault are commonplace on many campuses. One in 10 women will be raped during their years in college. Studies have revealed that 80 percent of crime is student on student. Alcohol is involved in 90 percent of college crime. Date-rape drugs are creating thousands of victims.

Security on Campus was founded by Connie and Howard Clery. The Clery Act is named after their daughter, Jeanne, a student at who was raped, tortured and killed by a fellow student. Like many moms and dads, these loving, wonderful parents lacked information about the lax security situation on their daughter’s campus. But they don’t want to see other children suffer the same fate, and other parents suffer as they have. So today, Security on Campus works to inform and empower parents -- and save lives.

My point is this: Parents do not become invisible partners when their kids enter college. Many colleges are mistaken about the law. They don’t know that the federal law allows colleges to give information about dependent students to their parents.

Thanks to Secretary Spellings and the Department of Education, we know otherwise. Don’t allow your son’s or your daughter’s school to intimidate you. And don’t assume that all of them are trying to leave you out. Many professors, teachers and administrators are just ignorant about the laws. Get the new brochure, arm yourself with the facts, and stay involved in the lives of your young, adult children. They need your guidance, care and love in college, too.

Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of “Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad“ and runs the Web site