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Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Privacy Law That Protects Students, and Colleges, Too

The Wall Street Journal - A law designed to keep college students' grades private often is used for a much different purpose -- to shield universities from potentially embarrassing situations.

Some critics say a number of schools are deliberately misreading the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in order to keep scandals and other unflattering news from hitting the media. "Some schools have good-faith misunderstandings of the law, but there are others that simply see this as a handy excuse to hide behind," says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which provides student journalists with legal help.

Legal experts say part of the problem is that the law is loosely defined. In addition, the potential consequences of violating the law -- namely, that schools would lose their federal funding -- prompt university officials to be conservative in their decisions about releasing information.

Those complaints rankle advocates of student privacy, who say that, if anything, the three-decade-old law should be expanded. "Most of these kids are adults, and they should be able to make their own decisions," says Daren Bakst, president of the Council on Law in Higher Education.

Congress already reworked the law to clarify when universities can disclose student information, especially involving health and safety matters. Those changes, adopted in January, followed the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech by a mentally troubled student.

But advocates for disclosure say the federal law, known as Ferpa, remains nebulous enough that colleges can use it to avoid revealing potentially embarrassing information. In March, Roger Williams University in Rhode Island was criticized for hiring the university president's 26-year-old son for a fund-raising job, which required a bachelor's degree. Citing the federal act, the university declined to say whether the son, Chris Nirschel, finished his undergraduate education at Roger Williams -- or anywhere else.

"From my understanding, we are allowed to disclose information on whether someone has graduated, but it isn't mandatory," said a Roger Williams spokeswoman. Mr. Nirschel, who left the job a short time later following an arrest in an unrelated matter, couldn't be reached for comment.

Such expansive interpretation of the law has some experts and politicians pressing Congress for further clarification. Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray believes the statute needs to be refocused. He recently wrote a letter to the Department of Education, urging it to spell out more clearly how schools should comply with the law.

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