FERPA protects personal information

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What privacy rights can students expect regarding their academic record at Johnson State College?
What rights do parents have regarding their children’s conduct while attending this college?
What rights do the press have in accessing information about disciplinary actions taken against students who violate college policies?

The answers to these questions, according to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, (FERPA) may surprise you.

FERPA was passed by congress in 1974 it grants three specific rights to students; the right to see the information that the institution is keeping on him/her; the right to seek amendment to those records and in certain cases append a statement to the record, and the right to disclosure of his/her records.
What these three rights essentially all deal with, is the student’s educational record, which consists of far more than grades.

A student’s educational record consists of personal information, enrollment records, grades and schedules.

When a student is enrolled in elementary and secondary schools, FERPA gives parents the right to have control over their student’s education record. Once a student turns 18, or upon their enrollment in a college or university, FERPA is transferred from the parents to the student, giving the student control over their educational record.

“The gist of it is that FERPA forwards students’ rights with the privacy of their educational record,” says JSC Registrar Doug Eastman. “It’s really the staff at colleges and universities that are charged with being incompliant with FERPA regulations.”

Students have the right to view their personal records and control how they are shared, and to propose modifications to those records if they feel they are not accurate. Educational records are any records that are specifically related to a particular student that the school has.

Dean of Students Dave Bergh explained that any records dealing with disciplinary or student life matters, and records that the Registrar Office has dealing with academic status are two examples of FERPA- covered records. “One of the things that the college cannot do without the permission of the student under FERPA is to release directly identifiable information about an individual,” said Bergh.

Eastman noted that there are some general exceptions to FERPA. “One common exception is the release of directory information, which really limits things like names, email addresses and participation in sports,” says Eastman. “We would only use these for publication releases and reason such as publishing the Dean’s List; these are generally positive things.”

Another common exception Eastman brought up is the ability to share information with other staff and faculty who have a need for certain information. “If we have a student who has some sort of disciplinary record and the dean of students wants to know what it is, we can communicate that,” says Eastman. “We can only release this information to that specific college official who has a need to know.”

Along with this, Eastman added that the college is also required to release information to the military under requirement exceptions.

Another exception to FERPA is if there is an immediate health or safety emergency involved.
Bergh explained that privacy rights take a back seat to these needs. “Along with this, roughly 15 years ago the federal government changed a provision in FERPA to allow colleges to contact parents of students specifically if there happens to be a violation of drug or alcohol policies,” said Bergh. In this type of case, the violation still falls under FERPA, so this information can only be relayed to the parents of the individual.

The only way that a violation a student has been accused of will be released, is if the student is being involved with both the college’s violation processes and a legal process. Any time a student is involved with a legal process, it is considered public knowledge. A good example of this is if a student is arrested.

Bergh said if a violation on campus falls under FERPA yet is considered an ongoing risk for the campus community, college officials can give out timely warnings.

“If someone is accused of something really serious on campus, the accused individual is still entitled to due process, and the college may take steps to have an accused student removed from campus while the process is investigated,” said Bergh. “In a situation like this we could put out a notice that there has been a report of something, but we still can’t identify names to protect the privacy rights of these individual even when major policy violations occur.”

Occasionally, when more serious cases occur at the college, Bergh says the administration will work+ with outside law enforcement. “There are a lot of cases where students bring concerns forward giving them a lot of choice in terms of how they want to see things processed,” said Bergh. “Any student can contact police at any time, but often there will be cases where we will encourage a student to do so if we feel something is at a level that warrants law enforcement.”

Bergh explained that they can’t make a student contact law enforcement, but he noted a change made to JSC’s code of conduct a few years ago. It states that the college reserves the right to contact law enforcement if in their judgment it’s necessary to, even if the student that brought the incident up doesn’t want them to. “Obviously no one can make anyone cooperate with law enforcement, but we will call and share as much information as we can in these cases,” said Bergh.

As far as FERPA restrictions go for staff and faculty, they cannot share any information such as grades with any individual other than the student the grades, or records are directly related to. “If someone releases information about a student’s record to someone who doesn’t have the right to that information, they are violating FERPA,” says Bergh.

Eastman noted that other than the three rights that students are given, the college doesn’t have to release any information, even if the policy allows them to. The FERPA policy, he said, is filled with the word “may,”, which legally implies discretion. “Take directory information for an example: if someone were to call me asking for a list of student’s information, I probably wouldn’t give it to them,” says Eastman. “I don’t have to, and I don’t think it would be in the best interest of the students.”

Bergh acknowledged that the main intention of FERPA is to prevent oversharing of individual’s personally identifiable information. “I don’t think students would want anyone knowing about their financial background, or incidents that they might have been involved with in their first year at the college,” he said. Despite that, Bergh feels at times FERPA can be inappropriately used. “I’m a firm believer that we should share as much information as we can legally. Sometimes FERPA can be used inappropriately as a justification for not sharing information that could be shared.”

For more information regarding FERPA, you can visit vsc.edu and type in “Policy 312” or “FERPA” in the search bar.

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