Responsible Minds Need to Know

Editor’s note: This is the final say in an exchange between two attorneys over the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that governs college students’ privacy rights. The first article, also by educational consultant Steven Roy Goodman and entitled “Keeping Secrets,” argued for less stringent controls on student records. John Locke Foundation director of legal and regulatory studies Daren Bakst countered with his article “Protecting Privacy in the Age of Too Much Information.”

I appreciate very much Daren Bakst taking the time to respond to “Keeping Secrets,” my article about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).  He is correct that the Wyoming case began with a suicidal student, and that Laramie County Community College attempted to apply FERPA to the case.  Where we may part company is my view that schools shouldn’t be permitted to hide behind the veil of FERPA until challenged by non-campus actors.  This puts the initial burden on parents and other concerned relatives to seek information, rather than on universities to explain why information shouldn’t be forthcoming.

Mr. Bakst and I would probably agree that university efforts to obfuscate less-than-positive happenings on campus were not the major purposes behind the FERPA of 1974 or the FERPA of 2008.  We would both further agree, I think, that the law in 2011 should be more specific in terms of what is and isn’t permissible under FERPA.

We may have a philosophical difference about the amount of information that parents should have about their students. I certainly appreciate the need for students to develop emotionally and professionally apart from their parents; as I stated in my original FERPA article for the Pope Center, a college student is regarded “as an independent person, responsible for his or her decisions.” Yet, I also wrote that “FERPA takes this notion too far; parents should have a major role in the development of their children – especially if there is concern that a child is unstable academically, socially or emotionally.

Mr. Bakst makes a good point that not all parents are positive caregivers.  But since we simply cannot plan for every family circumstance or contingency on campus, we have to rely on statistics.  Students generally need more guidance from adults than the other way around, and the need for external oversight on campus often involves issues of physical safety. 

While we certainly want to try to protect the privacy of individual students, a number one concern in an emergency is saving lives.  The growing need to protect students, professors and others in dormitories and classrooms affects us all.  Additionally, concerns about curricular content and career preparation, as well as increasingly complex conflicts around student and parent rights and responsibilities, all point to the importance of clarifying the appropriate limits and reach of FERPA throughout the educational arena and beyond campus walls.