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Recently many questions have arisen concerning the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the federal law that protects the privacy of students’ education records. The Department wishes to clarify what FERPA says about postsecondary institutions sharing information with parents.
What are parents’ and students’ rights under FERPA?
At the K-12 school level, FERPA provides parents with the right to inspect and review their children’s education records, the right to seek to amend information in the records they believe to be inaccurate, misleading, or an invasion of privacy, and the right to consent to the disclosure of personally identifiable information from their children’s education records. When a student turns 18 years old or enters a postsecondary institution at any age, these rights under FERPA transfer from the student’s parents to the student. Under FERPA, a student to whom the rights have transferred is known as an “eligible student.” Although the law does say that the parents’ rights afforded by FERPA transfer to the “eligible student,” FERPA clearly provides ways in which an institution can share education records on the student with his or her parents.
While concerns have been expressed about the limitations on the release of information, there are exceptions to FERPA’s general rule that educational agencies and institutions subject to FERPA may not have a policy or practice of disclosing “education records” without the written consent of the parent (at the K-12 level) or the “eligible student.”
When may a school disclose information to parents of dependent students?
Under FERPA, schools may release any and all information to parents, without the consent of the eligible student, if the student is a dependent for tax purposes under the IRS rules.
Can a school disclose information to parents in a health or safety emergency?
The Department interprets FERPA to permit schools to disclose information from education records to parents if a health or safety emergency involves their son or daughter.
Can parents be informed about students’ violation of alcohol and controlled substance rules?
Another provision in FERPA permits a college or university to let parents of students under the age of 21 know when the student has violated any law or policy concerning the use or possession of alcohol or a controlled substance.
Can a school disclose law enforcement unit records to parents and the public?
Additionally, under FERPA, schools may disclose information from “law enforcement unit records” to anyone – including parents or federal, State, or local law enforcement authorities – without the consent of the eligible student. Many colleges and universities have their own campus security units. Records created and maintained by these units for law enforcement purposes are exempt from the privacy restrictions of FERPA and can be shared with anyone.
Can school officials share their observations of students with parents?
Nothing in FERPA prohibits a school official from sharing with parents information that is based on that official’s personal knowledge or observation and that is not based on information contained in an education record. Therefore, FERPA would not prohibit a teacher or other school official from letting a parent know of their concern about their son or daughter that is based on their personal knowledge or observation.
How does HIPAA apply to students’ education records?
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a law passed by Congress intended to establish transaction, security, privacy, and other standards to address concerns about the electronic exchange of health information. However, the HIPAA Privacy Rule excludes from its coverage those records that are protected by FERPA at school districts and postsecondary institutions that provide health or medical services to students. This is because Congress specifically addressed how education records should be protected under FERPA. For this reason, records that are protected by FERPA are not subject to the HIPAA Privacy Rule and may be shared with parents under the circumstances described above.
In all of our programs here at the Department of Education, we consistently encourage parents’ involvement in their children’s education. FERPA is no exception. While the privacy rights of all parents and adult students are very important, there are clear and straightforward ways under FERPA that institutions can disclose information to parents and keep them involved in the lives of their sons and daughters at school.