Student Privacy Buttressed by New Policy
Stricter guidelines curtail information sharing, including to parents
Boston University has changed its policies concerning information about students that will be made available to parents and guardians. And it’ll be a lot less than before.
According to the revised policy, in effect since September 1, the University will no longer send grade reports and notices of preliminary disciplinary actions to parents or guardians. It will also refrain from answering parent inquiries about a student’s academic progress or general well-being.
In an open letter to faculty and staff, President Robert A. Brown says the new practices are consistent with the University’s view that students should be treated like responsible, independent adults.
Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore says the new policy brings BU in line with most universities and allows faculty and staff to share limited information if, and only if, the student has given consent. Elmore says the policy conforms with requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which describes what records parents have a right to review and what background they are entitled to know.
The law under FERPA, although surprising to many, is clear: when a student reaches 18 years of age or from the first day attending school beyond high school level (whichever comes first), in most cases he or she controls outside access to personal records.
Such legalities might seem difficult for parents (many of whom are providing financial support) to accept. But laws that fall under the general rubric of privacy rights often do not distinguish between interested parties — insurance companies, for example — and family members. So once enrolled, students take on the rights of private citizens attending a private institution, regardless of who’s paying the bill.
“Under this revised approach we will communicate only limited information about a
student to others, and only if we have that student’s consent,” says Elmore. That restriction will be waived any time a University official believes a student is in danger, but will not be waived for basic inquiries about a student’s status — for example, whether he or she is still enrolled.
This new policy impacts everyone employed by the University, from administrators to faculty to resident advisors.
Because FERPA rights are often confusing, the University has created an internal Web site with further information. Faculty and staff may access this site through the University Registrar’s Web site, clicking on the faculty/staff tab in the top right corner.
BU Today turned to Laurie Pohl, vice president for enrollment and student affairs, for answers to questions about the new University policy.
BU Today: Why doesn’t the University send grades to parents or guardians?
Pohl: Grades are part of a student’s education record, which the student owns. We believe that, as adults, students should be the ones sharing grades — and other information about their standing and progress as students — with their parents or guardians. We are providing a tool on the Student Link to make sharing grades and student account information easy and secure. Look for information on “ShareLink.”
Does the University alert parents when students are in physical or emotional distress?
We will alert parents or guardians in the event of an emergency that poses a threat to their son or daughter. This has been the case, and it will continue to be the case. In addition, if parents or guardians call us with concerns about their son or daughter, we will listen carefully and work with the student to identify problems and make resources available as needed. But we will not convey the results of our contact with students or relay specific observations about their son or daughter to parents or guardians. Our responses will convey only general information relevant to the particular situation. In all of our communications — with students and parents — we will urge communication between them.
Under what conditions, exactly, does the University contact parents?
Any time we believe that an emergency poses a threat or danger to the health or safety of their son or daughter, the University will communicate with parents or guardians — whether or not the student grants consent. An example would be the fire that occurred on Aberdeen Street two years ago. With a student’s consent, we will also notify parents or guardians if a student will no longer be enrolled or residing on campus, in such cases as suspension, leave of absence, or withdrawal from the University, or the student’s removal from University housing.
Can a student give the University permission to talk to parents about personal or health issues?
In general, no. We rely on students to convey this information to parents. We will support students as they broach these often difficult subjects with parents, and we will respond to parent inquiries in general terms. In some cases, however, students may grant consent for University health-care providers to communicate with parents or guardians about personal or health issues. In these cases, consent covers only the particular situation at hand, such as when a student asks the health-care provider to call his or her parents to let them know what’s going on. Students may not provide a blanket consent for University health-care providers to share information about them with parents or guardians.
What should parents who are concerned about the welfare of a son or daughter do?
First, talk about it. Ask specific, open-ended questions. If you continue to be concerned, call us. We will always listen carefully and take any actions — including reaching out to the student — with all due speed.
Helpful information about what to watch out for and where to get information is available here.
Art Jahnke contributed to this report.12 Comments