Walton suggests that increasing reports of crimes on campus is one way to resolve the seeming conflict between FERPA's dictates of student privacy and a university's legitimate concerns about the ability to exercise authority over students, since FERPA only addresses educational records and does not speak to criminal records (Walton, 2002).
In addition to using a literature review to examine this problem from a global perspective, this researcher engaged in two types of evidence-gathering to investigate attitudes towards FERPA. The first type of evidence-gathering involved surveying students at Maryland State University to determine their attitudes towards FERPA and whether they believed it helped or hindered their success in college. The second type of evidence-gathering involved an interview with a representative at the Office of the Dean at Maryland State University to ask his opinion about the utility of FERPA.
The results of both the survey and the interview reflect some of the same concerns about college students being quasi-adults and still being in need of some parental monitoring that must follow any discussions of FERPA. The results of the student survey demonstrated that four of every ten students would actually support easing the restrictions of FERPA in a way to increase the potential of parental monitoring. While it may seem counterintuitive that college students would willingly give up some of their privacy, those results make sense when one understands the reasoning given by the college students. One of the students I interviewed has been getting good grades but due to excessive social gatherings in college, he has found that he has to pull frequent all-nighters in order to maintain this high grade point average. When he was asked whether college should enforce the discipline rules, he asserted that he would gladly a more authoritarian campus. Subsequently, when asked why he wanted this, he simply said it was for his own good and the strictness would probably lead him to success in college. However, the student response was certainly not unanimous; another student claimed that he would find increased oversight burdensome because he wanted the ability to assert his freedom. Interestingly enough, all students seemed to agree that giving the university a greater ability to monitor their activity would help them vastly improve their grades.
The interview with the representative of the Office of the Dean was supportive of FERPA, but did acknowledge that the law was not flawless. He told me once there was a parent demanding to know what their son's grade are and his whereabouts. In fact, he already dropped out of college a year ago and had spent all the tuition fees on something else. However, the representative did not believe this was a problem with FERPA, itself, but seemed to suggest it was a student-specific problem. He believed that one could help college students transition to greater privacy and adult autonomy without challenging the fundamental guarantees of privacy contained in FERPA. He went on to give examples to combat FERPA problem: disciplining students before they enroll into college. He gave me information about Florida State University, which has a summer bridge program that includes a week long orientation during which students meet the university president, followed by six weeks during which roughly 300 students live together in a residence hall staffed by handpicked upperclassmen. During this time period, they familiarize students with the university's rules and disciplinary procedure in an attempt to avoid issues once school actually begins. Another solution is to advocate an open-door policy as a means of attempting to help students resolve issues that might be exacerbated by a lack of parental communication. For example, McDaniel College has established a system of mentoring and advising with the goal of ensures that no student is lost; even parents facing difficulty transitions in life can come in and access school resources to help them deal with negative life events.
Why is discipline considered such a critical issue when FERPA appears to be related to privacy concerns? This is due to the fact that discipline and privacy have significant overlap, particularly in regards to college-age students. College students simultaneously face greater exposure to disciplinary proceedings, but also less exposure to significant interventions, and FERPA has been used to shelter some at-risk college students from exposure. The range of areas where FERPA has been used as an excuse to hide the fact that students who have committed infractions have received only nominal punishment is broad, encompassing everything from parking violations to sexual assaults. However, the Virginia Tech massacre and the concerns that it invoked led many people to really consider the full implications of FERPA.
One of the problems with FERPA is that is "a large, complex, and confusing body of law" (Daggett, 2008). It has evolved beyond a law protecting student privacy and the right to access one's own student records into a law that has been applied in other contexts. One of the ways that this has occurred is that schools have used FERPA as a sword, rather than a shield, asserting privacy concerns that would seem to threaten a school's ability to be authoritarian, but, by shielding a school's actual actions, might actually place students at greater risk of malfeasance on the part of the educational facility. After all, if there is no transparency in the disciplinary process, how can anyone assess whether a school is treating its students appropriately?
FERPA has been subjected to a significant amount of critical discussion because of misconceptions about what type of information FERPA prohibits from disclosure. There seems to be a belief that FERPA prohibits an educational facility from releasing any non-directory information about a student, and that understanding is simply erroneous. Moreover, that misunderstanding has impacted people at every level, with university administrators either intentionally or unintentionally misinterpreting these provisions to prohibit disclosure of students who have been found guilty of inappropriate behavior via the student disciplinary process. The reality is that FERPA does strongly protect student educational records, but that there is still substantial room for disclosure under the statute.
My informal survey suggests that a surprising percentage of college students would be willing to exchange some of their FERPA guarantees of privacy for a higher degree of either parental or university oversight of their behaviors. Moreover, even those who are unwilling to trade privacy for greater oversight acknowledge that doing so would probably lead to an increase in student grades. However, it would be erroneous to label this a problem with FERPA. As previously discussed, FERPA does not prohibit students from signing waivers giving the university the right to share information with parents. Nor does FERPA prohibit parents from requiring their children to agree to this type of information-sharing as a condition of receiving tuition money from the parents.
Furthermore, the situation described by the representative in the Office of the Dean, in which the parents had spent a year's tuition on a child that was no longer even enrolled in the school may seem to indicate a problem with FERPA, but probably describes much more serious communication problems within that family. One simply cannot assume that degree of lack of communication in the average family. Moreover, one cannot assume that a change to the law that would threaten the privacy of all college-age students is necessary to combat issues in individual families. After all, had those parents required their student to fill out a waiver that would have given the parents access to the student's information before every sending the University of Maryland tuition for that student, then they would not have found themselves in the position of trying to get FERPA-protected information from the school.
Moreover, while some students reflected genuine concerns that FERPA might prevent schools from notifying families in the event that a student seemed to be in need of help, and that such a need would prevent that student from signing any type of FERPA waiver, those concerns do not reflect the reality of the bill. In the wake of school shootings, where it has been revealed that students were considered high-risk prior to the shooting, some people believe that FERPA has operated to prevent disclosure of troubling information about those students. However, FERPA only prohibits such disclosure if the information is part of the student's official educational records. While some universities might mistakenly believe that FERPA prohibits such disclosure, "in reality the law would permit disclosure" (Tribbensee & McDonald, 2007). In addition, FERPA is not linked to disclosure of personal information; a professor or other staff member who noted disturbing behavior by a student would not be prohibited from disclosing those observations, unless otherwise bound by some type of confidentiality. It is also specifically targeted towards official institutional records; for example, it is not a FERPA violation to share information about grades in a classroom setting (Friedman,…