Federal student privacy laws need a second look

After serving as an orientation leader during this semester’s move-in, I thought I knew Emerson’s alcohol and drug policy inside and out. During training, we were drilled on the privacy rights of students and the details of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. College students are legally entitled to certain health assistance and educational privacy rights from their school, and as temporary workers for the college, we were required to know them.

However, between the details of FERPA and Emerson’s medical amnesty policy exists a gray area that raises many questions about the means through which students’ privacy is violated or circumvented, prompting a necessary reevaluation of the FERPA definitions of student privacy.

FERPA, the federal law that governs the release and access of education records, applies to all schools that receive federal funding. The purpose of the law is to protect personally identifiable information in educational records. Under FERPA, information like a student’s name, social security number, and other personal identifiers cannot be released without the consent of the student. However, the definition of the “education records” the law protects from publication is quite specific; medical or psychological records, such as those from on-campus treatment centers,  and law enforcement records are just two examples of the private information that the legislation allows being disclosed.

Information gathered by the school when a student violates any conduct policy— drug and alcohol related or otherwise— are directly related to students and can identify them, and ought to fall under this federal definition. This personal information recorded by the school should fall under FERPA, and it should be left to individual students to keep or disclose to meet the initial intentions of this legislation.

Alcohol-related amnesty policies like Emerson’s—which, according to previous Berkeley Beacon reporting, was introduced in February 2009—speak to the privacy and educational needs of a generation different than the generation FERPA was passed nearly 40 years earlier to serve. The contemporary medical amnesty procedures employed by most schools include parental notification, an example of  the disconnect between these older definitions of student privacy that is clear.

During move-in, orientation leaders are repeatedly instructed as to what information can and cannot be shared under FERPA and how this extends to seemingly the most basic information. As it stands now, a student’s room number is information unavailable to share with parents or others seeking this information, but disciplinary or conduct records are.

This conflict of educational privacy definitions should be addressed, by a revision of either FERPA or of the college’s medical amnesty policy. Higher education students have a right to their “personal identifiable information” gathered by the school, and reforms are necessary: Medical amnesty policies and FERPA should no longer exist in a state of dissonance.