Guides on Sharing Information Released

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings yesterday released what she called "user-friendly" guidelines to help educators and parents interpret federal privacy laws in an initiative prompted by the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

Concerns about properly balancing privacy and safety concerns have been on the minds of educators nationwide since the April 16 massacre. A panel appointed by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) found that "widespread confusion" about privacy restrictions led to communications lapses among officials who dealt with mentally ill student Seung Hui Cho before he shot and killed 33 people, including himself.

Spellings appeared with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez at Mount Vernon High School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County for a presentation on school safety.

The Virginia Tech shooting has sparked many efforts to tighten school security, improve mental health services and create systems to alert students of danger. Spellings said schools also have asked for guidance on what information can be shared among government agencies and parents under the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

"People often thought that information couldn't be shared when, in fact, it could be," Spellings said. She said the guidelines help explain "the rules of the road as we share information about students."

The Education Department released three brochures on the law: one for K-12 educators, one for colleges and one for parents. They will be sent to schools, school boards and education associations.

Lawmakers are also considering revising the privacy law. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) has introduced legislation to allow school officials to contact parents if a student is considered suicidal or a threat to attack someone. The law already allows officials to share information with parents or other agencies if there is a health or safety emergency, but Murphy contends that the language is vague.

Spellings said that before any changes are made, officials and educators should understand current law.

Kaine's panel found that at Virginia Tech, officials and others sometimes wrongly believed that educational or medical privacy laws prevented them from sharing information. The panel found, for instance, that police could have informed Cho's parents when female students complained about his behavior. The report also noted that the law applies only to records, and that professors or administrators who notice a student acting strangely can share that information with police and parents.

Lawrence K. Pettit, former president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, recently completed a report on the shootings for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities that summarizes the panel findings. He is advising university presidents to work with state attorneys general to better understand the intersection of federal educational and medical privacy laws, as well as state restrictions.

"It's become pretty complicated, and I think it's incredibly important that we come to some understanding on how to interpret these laws, and how student affairs officials and faculty and others can proceed when they suspect there's a problem," Pettit said. "What we are trying to do is get all the value we can out of hindsight."

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