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Understanding FERPA & Educational Records Disclosure

opened lockThis past semester I had a rather distressing issue with a student that I had never experienced before. The long and short of it is that the student was extremely unhappy with the grade I had given them, and wasn’t content to accept said grade even after much discussion, explanation, and pointing to the pertinent assignment guidelines on the course website (which they had neglected to follow). Unfortunately, the situation became incredibly complex, and eventually escalated up to the office of the President.

One of the many issues in play was the disclosure of the student’s records. One of the student’s parents called me requesting information about the student’s performance in the class. I repeatedly refused to give the requested information, saying that under FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), I was prohibited from disclosing student educational records (even to a parent) unless the student had given explicit and official consent. In many ways, I was really using this as a way to stop the parent from calling me as things got dealt with by people in the university with a far higher pay grade. The kicker is that I wasn’t 100% sure I was right in this regard.

For instance, I didn’t know for sure whether parents actually had a right to student records if the student was younger than 18. The problem with the student was eventually resolved (and the question of disclosing student records turned into a trivial part of the overall picture at the end of things). However, I learned that I sure as heck had better get my facts straight about who I can disclose student records to, and under what circumstances those records can be disclosed.

The problem is that when it comes to this particular aspect of FERPA, things are a little confusing. Actually, things are quite confusing. A quick call out on Twitter revealed that many other people (both student and faculty) are in the same boat as me in this regard…the boat being the S.S. Confusion. After looking at the relevant parts of FERPA, I was left scratching my head. I had no choice but to put a call into my Associate Registrar (who deals with FERPA issues at my university) to clarify things (which she did). So, with the question of whether I am legally required to disclose student educational records to parents firmly in mind, lets have a look at the relevant parts of FERPA.

Before I get rolling, a big caveat. I am not a lawyer, nor am I an expert in matters of FERPA. This is essentially a very case specific discussion of my experience (and the results of that experience) in the hopes that it might help other faculty in a similar situation.

This having been said, let’s proceed.

According to the FERPA guidelines:

FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level. Students to whom the rights have transferred are “eligible students.”

So, if a student is 18 years or attending a post secondary institution, they have rights over their educational records. This also means that, regardless of their age, as long as a student is attending a post secondary institution, their parents do not automatically get access to their educational records. At Michigan State University (my institution), “attending” starts on the first official day of the semester (as opposed to the day that the student registers). So, in answer to my original question, faculty aren’t legally required to disclose student records to parents if the student in question is under the age of 18 (as long as they are attending university).

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Well, not so much. There is an extra variable that needs to be introduced (and which is really the complicating factor). Section 99.31(a)(8) of FERPA states that:

The Secretary clarifies that educational agencies and institutions may disclose education records to the parents of a dependent student, as defined in section 152 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, without the student’s consent. An educational agency or institution may disclose education records to either parent of a dependent student, regardless of which parent claims the student as a dependent.

Ok, so if the student in question is claimed as a dependent on the parent’s taxes, then the parent has the right to access the student’s education records without the student’s permission? Well, yes and no. As my Associate Registrar explained to me, this is a “may, not must” situation. You’ll notice that the section says that “an educational agency or institution may disclose education records…” (my emphasis) The bottom line is that it falls within the domain of the university’s privacy policy as to whether they wish to use the student’s status as a dependent as a factor determining who can gain access to their educational records. And here is the extra complicated part (as if you needed any more complicated parts)—different universities implement this differently.

For instance, Michigan State University has decided not to disclose educational records to parents regardless of whether the student in question is claimed on their taxes as a dependent. Your university might be the same way, or it might not. How do you figure out where your university stands? Well, in my experience, the “official” university FERPA documentation available online is, at best, murky. When I managed to find what I was looking for on my institution’s website, it didn’t help all that much. The guidelines weren’t particularly clear or detailed.

So, what is the solution? Find out who reigns supreme over FERPA matters at your university, and give them a call. In my case, as mentioned already, it was the Associate Registrar. She was able to answer my question immediately.

At the end of the day, I’ve managed to answer my question. Unless the student has officially given consent, I have no legal obligation to disclose their academic records to their parents. The problem is that I haven’t really answered the question for anyone who isn’t at my institution. Because the implementation will be different for different institutions, it behooves you, dear readers, to go find the information out for yourself. Because, in all honestly, you can’t afford not to.

The last piece of advice I would give if you are unsure as to where you stand when someone requests the educational records of one of your students? Pass the buck. Seriously. Refer the parent (or guardian) to your department Chair or relevant associate or assistant Dean. After all, that’s one of the reasons they get paid the big bucks.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user subcircle]

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