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Education Reporter

Some Colleges and Students Withhold Records from Parents
It seems natural to assume that colleges would share a student's grades and report any disciplinary action to his parents, if they are paying to send him to school. Parents are often shocked to discover that colleges will not communicate with them or disclose any records without written permission from the student.

A 1974 federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, (FERPA), generally requires colleges to obtain written permission from students before releasing their records to anyone, including their parents. But there are exceptions. Schools may release information to parents in case of a health or safety emergency, or if a student under age 21 commits a drug or alcohol violation.

More importantly, FERPA requires colleges to block parental access only for students with independent tax status — in other words, those whose parents cannot declare them as dependents on their income taxes.

Parents can claim any full-time student under the age of 24 as a dependent as long as they provide at least half of the student's support. Tuition the parents pay and any loans they take out for the student's expenses count toward the parents' support, but scholarships the student receives do not count toward his part of the support. Therefore, it is very unusual for a student to have independent tax status while his parents are still paying tuition.

Nevertheless, many colleges choose to act as if FERPA required them to withhold all student information from parents, regardless of who pays the bills. The U.S. Department of Education encourages schools to offer students the option of signing a preformatted privacy waiver if they want the school to release records to their parents. At Temple University, about 5,000 undergraduates out of 23,000 signed the privacy waiver last year. When schools don't offer a preformatted waiver, students must take the initiative to write and send their own letters of consent if their parents are to have any access to their records.

Even when a student has signed a waiver, it does not mean a copy of his grades or a report of disciplinary action will necessarily go to his parents. "A waiver permits access to student information, but it doesn't automate the flow of information," University of North Texas administrator Deborah S. Leliaert told the Wall Street Journal (9-20-07). "In most cases, it's incumbent on the parent to make an inquiry." Although parents who claim their children as tax dependents are legally entitled to inspect student records, most schools still don't release records automatically to parents who qualify.

The topic of privacy has become prominent following recent incidents in which a restricted flow of information has caused problems for parents or schools. Virginia Tech officials have blamed privacy policies for their failure to communicate the warning signs of gunman Cho Seung Hui's mental disturbance to his parents or local authorities.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported a case in which MIT administrators withheld student Daniel Barclay's records from his parents during what was clearly a health or safety emergency. After Daniel had been missing for a week, MIT still refused his mother access to his dorm room or computer files. The school cited its privacy policy, which does not recognize the tax-dependent status exception in FERPA, but does in theory recognize the exception in case of emergency. However, MIT demanded a subpoena even after Daniel was listed in a national missing persons database.

Daniel had been missing for nine days when his body was discovered, dead either by suicide or misadventure. MIT's refusal to involve his family in the search by giving them access to his records "added to the anguish level immeasurably," said his mother (Wall Street Journal, 9-10-07).

Some school administrators and others are now debating whether FERPA should be changed. But the law does not prevent parental involvement in cases like Daniel Barclay's. Instead, colleges' own overzealous privacy policies go beyond FERPA, and even farther beyond a common-sense approach to student privacy.

On October 30, the U.S. Secretary of Education published guidance for how parents can cope with students' privacy rights. Three new brochures and a form may be downloaded from www.ed.gov.

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