Thursday, April 19, 2007

Amend FERPA – Tell Parents if Their Kid is Sick

One good thing that might come of the Virginia Tech tragedy is the momentum to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to let the family in on some crucial information that schools are now obliged to keep private. If a college student like shooter Seung Cho is deemed by the college psychologists to be seriously mentally ill, even a "danger to himself and others," the university is forbidden by federal law to tell his parents. This should change.

Maybe nothing could have been done to keep Seung Cho from hurting someone. His parents, who appear to be quiet immigrants with a limited command of English, have said nothing publicly, so it is hard to even guess what they might have been able to do. Still, parents are more likely to be able to reach a disturbed kid than a university that is hamstrung by bureaucratic regulations. Teachers and students did bring Cho to the attention of university mental health authorities, and they did what they could. But the university could not compel Cho to seek help. And they were forbidden from contacting his parents, the people most likely to get their son into care and out of the way of harming others.

Yeah, sure, there will be some cases in which the parents are the cause of the kid's mental problems. Notifying them might make it worse. So give the college mental health folks the discretion to decide when the family should be notified. But Congress should not prejudge that parents should never be notified that their kids need help. Privacy should not prevent help when it is most needed.


Jody Harrington said...

Thank you, Beau. It's so distressing to read the interview with the professor who tried to intervene because she was rightfully concerned about Cho.

The type of legislation you reference is clearly a big part of the problem.

Anonymous said...


I'm flabbergasted that people knew that this young man was troubled, but that everyone felt his or her hands were tied.

Anonymous said...

The CHIEF problem here is not so much FERPA itself, which is something of a paper tiger, but the elaborate "understandings" and "interpretations" that have arisen around it since the latter 1970s. In a nutshell, educational institutions at all levels have generally acted like cowards, and used FERPA to get out of establishing and enforcing sensible information sharing rules and procedures. So whenever info and data sharing issues come up,
they just hide behind "FERPA" and refuse to cooperate. It would make a tremendous difference in our institutions if we could indeed revamp
FERPA at the state and federal levels (the federal legislation is dominant here, and many states have their own version that essentially echos the federal approach). Complicating all of this is that FERPA issues are dealt with at institutions largely by their legal offices, and as you know lawyers will usually take the most conservative and obstructionist approach possible. Hence if there is even a whiff of a possibility that someone could get in trouble for sharing information, the answer will more often than not be to "just say no."

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with such an amendment. While I recognize the tragedy of this event, we must realize that this sort of happening if much more the exception than the rule of college students with mental health issues.
College students dealing with less severe mental issues might be less willing to seek help if they think there is a chance that other people will find out about it. The doctor client relationship is no different in mental health than it is in physical health and there should be no additional exceptions, especially when we are talking about legal adults.
I don't have any stats to back me up, but it seems obvious to me that suicide kills far more college students than crazed shooters. If staff/faculty feel that an individual is dangerous, there are channels to go through. Obviously those channels failed at Va Tech. It's the enforcement that we need to address, not violating the privacy rights of mental health patients.

blepper said...

I recently attended a workshop titled Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax who is an advocate for Single Sex Schools. He has a chapter in his book that pertains to the type of student that would be like this student the two male students from Columbine. We as educators need to be more aware of these red flags and take a stand and trust our instincts when we know that a student is trouble and get them the help that he or she needs. But more importantly what is going on in society that young people feel so compelled to take these drastic measures. My blog is at slpforspecialed

Over the the past 30 years I have seen students having more severe mental illness during the past 10 years. We really need to look at what are the causes and make some changes in our life styles.

Mark Smith said...

Sorry, but no.

We expect college students to be adults. As such, we need to LET them be adults.

Overturning this legislation would allow parents to further interfere in students' lives. These helicopter parents could easily continue to control the lives of their children, possibly CAUSING further mental illness.

This could easily have happened in a shopping mall. Do you propose banning anyone who has been mentally ill from a mall?

Let independent adults be independent adults. It's too much of a knee-jerk reaction to infringe on that because of a very, infinitesimally small number of bad outcomes.