NYT: After Campus Shootings, U.S. to Ease Privacy Rules

<p>These proposed regulations may help parents with children who have mental illness at college. Note that while there are no big changes proposed, at least there is clarification that would "stop administrators from invoking the privacy act as an excuse for inaction."</p>

<p><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/25/us/25privacy.html?scp=1&sq=mental+illness+college+information&st=nyt%5B/url%5D"&gt;http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/25/us/25privacy.html?scp=1&sq=mental+illness+college+information&st=nyt&lt;/a&gt;&lt;/p>

<p>After Campus Shootings, U.S. to Ease Privacy Rules
By Tamar Lewin, published March 25, 2008, New York Times</p>

<p>The Federal Education Department proposed on Monday new regulations to clarify when universities may release confidential student information and, after the Virginia Tech shootings last year, reassure college officials that they will not face penalties for reporting fears about mentally ill students. The proposed regulations were prompted by concerns that colleges were overemphasizing the students’ privacy rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to not intercede with young people who appear troubled. </p>

<p>Although the law has always had a health and safety exception that allows releasing confidential information in emergency situations, many college officials have been wary of invoking it, fearful of being found to violate the federal privacy law. Even though the regulations would provide no major substantive changes, lawyers who specialize in education said they were important to the extent that they stop administrators from invoking the privacy act as an excuse for inaction. “You’re the dean, you think a student’s in trouble, and you want to pick up the phone to call his parents or his doctor,” said Sheldon Steinbach, a lawyer at Dow Lohnes in Washington. “But you’re worried that you’re violating the law and you’re going to lose all your federal funding.” “The safety and health provision’s always been there,” Mr. Steinbach continued. “But these regulations provide a psychological safety net for young, risk-averse administrators.”</p>

<p>The Virginia Tech shootings in April left 33 people dead, including the student gunman, Seung-Hui Cho. A report by a panel that Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia named found that because university officials misunderstood federal privacy laws as forbidding any exchange of a student’s mental health information, they missed numerous indications of Mr. Cho’s mental health problems. A federal report in June found widespread confusion over the laws. “There were concerns and confusion about the potential liability of teachers, administrators, or institutions that could arise from sharing information, or from not sharing information, under privacy laws, as well as laws designed to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of mental illness,” that report said. “It was almost universally observed that these fears and misunderstandings likely limit the transfer of information in more significant ways than is required by law.”</p>

<p>The new rules would create a safe harbor for campus administrators who see a significant threat to the health or safety of a student or others and disclose confidential information to people who can respond. “If, based on the information available at the time of the determination, there is a rational basis for the determination, the department will not substitute its judgment for that of the educational agency or institution in evaluating the circumstances and making its determination,” the proposed regulations said.</p>

<p>Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, said the proposed regulations should prove helpful. “Colleges and universities tend to be very law abiding and sometimes go too far to be sure they’re in compliance,” Ms. Meloy said. “But because of the shocking nature of recent happenings on some college campuses, there is more understanding that to err on the side of withholding information can have dire consequences.”
The proposal would also bring the 1974 privacy law into the 21st century. It would extend coverage to students attending class online, discuss data theft and let universities release student information to contractors and consultants to whom they outsource work. The proposal also clarifies, but does not change, the often misunderstood rules on parents’ access to their children’s college grades and other records. The privacy law lets universities give parents the education records of students claimed as dependents on their tax returns. Universities may also give parents information about students younger than 21, dependent or not, if they violate drug or alcohol policies.</p>

<p>Finally! At least on the basis of the article, these are rational changes to clarify the extent of the law. Of course, these new regulations will also be parsed and second-guessed and litigated just like everything else, but it seems a step in the right direction.</p>