Student Privacy

It is not surprising that the nation is asking itself what might have prevented the massacre of 32 student and faculty and Virginia Tech. The killer (I am deliberated not according him the honor of mentioning his name) was 23-year old student who had a history of mental illness. There will be discussion about gun control laws and whether a different reporting regime would have prevented the killer from acquiring the weapons he employed. Here we address an important ancillary issue, the extent to which laws protecting student privacy prevent a healthy relationship between the university, students, and their parents.

The old tradition of universities and colleges was to manage students as parents would, the princple of in loco parentis. However, the ethos of extreme personal autonomy has spread to campuses. Students are treated as full adults, even if greater concern and care seem warranted. If as student is having academic or personal problems, parents will not be generally notified. Parents do not have right to view student grades. Parents are only notified if the policy are called or emergency medical treatment required.

In many ways this is convenient for universities. Schools still insist upon parental finanical support to the extent they practically can, but the source of funds is separated from the consumers, the students. Parents who pay for the services are more likely to confront school administrators about the quality of educational services and the manner in which they are provided.

Federal law prohibits universities from releasing student records, even grades, to anyone unless the student has granted permission. This crucial point is often time explained to parents at orientation classes for parents of prospective freshman. Don’t bother to call the school to find out how Johnny or Sally are doing, because federal law keeps the university from responding.

However, what is generally not said is that one important exception to the law is that the parents of children who are still dependents, as defined by the Internal Revenue Code, have every right to student records. This situation applies to many incoming freshman. The fact that this exception is not generally made clear to parents is an indication that universties rather not be bothered by pesky parents.

The extent that universities really care about the welfare of student is in part measured by their genuine attempts to involve parents in the education and care of student, not just fund raising and boosterism. The first step is to make sure that parents understand their rights.

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