Law Protects Student Information

Thursday, April 19th 2007, 10:24 am
By: News On 6

There's an issue of how much information about the potential threat at Virginia Tech was released by the school. While there were warning signs, schools can't report anything less than an urgent threat to anyone. The News On 6’s Emory Bryan reports that's because of a federal law that protects everything from mental health, down to grades and class attendance.

Rogers State University is a small school where students, teachers and parents might seem to be in closer touch, but RSU has to abide by privacy laws that keep almost all student records hidden from view, even from parents.

“It basically says that students have a right to privacy in their educational records, but those records include any interaction or anything that might happen on the campus,” said RSU administrator Dr. Kathy Hoppe.

The law covers almost everything including grades, attendance and discipline, and non-emergency medical information. It's all private unless a student specifically signs paperwork to let someone else know.

"Given my relationship with my parents, I probably would," said RSU student Daron Wright.

But administrators say only some do the paperwork, allowing a third party to know what's happening with them. There are questions about whether those laws prevented more people from knowing about the threat of the Virginia Tech shooter.

"The key is we have to have just cause to believe that it's a serious threat and an imminent threat,” said Hoppe. “That's where the difficulty comes in."

The privacy laws have been in place since 1974. A student can sign a waiver of their rights, but the school cannot require a student to do it, even if the parents are paying the bills.

"I, as a parent, am paying for part of my son's college expense, so I do want to know how he's doing, and he doesn't have to share his grades if he doesn't want to," said Hoppe.

Wright believes no one could be as isolated here as the Virginia Tech shooter was at his much larger school.

"We do have some people who are around here with those feelings. I've known people who were depressed, even suicidal, but my response and the people at this school has been totally different,” said Wright. “He really felt like he didn't have anyone, here, a person like that, someone always talks to them."

Schools can release information about a student in an emergency, but that's only when someone decides it's an imminent threat, but the law says they cannot release information about less urgent concerns. So a broad concern that a student is troubled or disruptive or just won't speak to his roommates or classmates, that's all shielded by this law.

To see the law in full: Family Educational Rights And Privacy Act

For an e-clip of this story click here.