Student records still protected with FERPA clarification

University Park, Pa. -- When the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford in 1974, it changed the way higher education institutions handled student record privacy.

The intent of the federal law was to protect the privacy of student education records, and it applied to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education. FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their minor children's education records. However, the law transfers those rights to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level.

Because compliance with the details of the law was directly tied to federal funding, higher education institutions including Penn State over the years have chosen to err on the side of caution when dealing with student records.

"The provisions of FERPA are complex and here at Penn State we tended, as many other institutions have done, to follow a conservative, narrow interpretation of the law to ensure full compliance," said Karen Schultz, University registrar and FERPA compliance officer for Penn State. "In the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech [in 2007], we are re-visiting our approach."

In the aftermath of what became the deadliest shooting rampage by a single gunman in U.S. history, it became known that the perpetrator, a student, had been diagnosed as mentally ill. The Virginia Tech panel reviewing the incident faulted university officials for failing to share information that would have shed light on the seriousness of the gunman’s problems, citing misinterpretations of federal privacy laws.

Since then, the federal government has worked to clarify FERPA, pointing out that the release of student records is allowable when it pertains to a threat to the safety or health of a student or other individuals. Penn State has convened a panel to re-evaluate University policy to ensure that it accurately interprets existing FERPA regulations.

"We are examining our interpretation of FERPA and reviewing our policies accordingly," said Schultz, a member of the panel. "We want to make sure that within FERPA regulations we do what is right to protect student records, while at the same time acting to ensure the safety of the University community."

The panel soon will forward its recommendations to Penn State President Graham B. Spanier and the President's Council for discussion.

"Once that process is complete, the next big step will be a two-pronged approach to education of our University community. First, we want to ensure proper understanding of what we can and cannot say or do with regard to student records. And second, we want to make faculty and staff aware of the resources available to assist them in dealing with students in distress,” she said.

A new brochure explaining FERPA for faculty members can be found at http://www.registrar.psu.edu/confidentiality/Faculty_and_FERPA.pdf.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009