In response to the events of April 16, 2007, the Department of Education revised the regulations in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a law that protects the confidentiality of student records in educational institutions.

Related: PDF

The FERPA revisions sought to clarify the responsibility schools have to disclose student information to parents, law officials and health officials if a student shows signs of being a threat to himself or others.

As the investigation of the April 16 shooter Seung-Hui Cho developed, it became apparent that Cho showed signs of mental instability to Tech faculty, but such concerns were not passed to appropriate authorities.

This resulted in a public demand that FERPA allow for circumstances under which schools would have the right to disclose student information to outside parties. However, Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the Department of Education, said such exceptions have always been acceptable under FERPA.

"We had always interpreted the law that way," Bradshaw said. "(The revisions) all came about as a result of the Virginia Tech tragedy and the fact that it appeared to us that there was a confusion in the field ... whether or not they could legally provide the information."

Bradshaw said that the revisions aim to make it "crystal clear" that there are exceptions to information privacy when the safety and health of students are involved.

Rick Ferraro, assistant vice president for student affairs and supervisor to Schiffert Health Center and Cook Counseling Center, pointed to the fact that institutions work hard to maintain FERPA regulations and don't push hard to challenge them.

"Partly what happens in these issues is the extent to which people respect privacy," Ferraro said. "You have to balance the needs of individual privacy with the needs of full protection of the individual and others, and I think there was a misunderstanding ... assumed there were restrictions that did not occur."

Bradshaw shared the same sentiment.

"Schools meet their obligations, generally; I think this illustrates schools are bending over backward to meet the requirements" without making assumptions about possible unclear guidelines.

Revisions to FERPA have been relatively rare since its creation in 1974, but the Department of Education considered it necessary to smooth out the confusion.

FERPA does not define what a threat to others is, but rather leaves that designation up to the individual schools. Ferraro said that for Tech, the definition has broadened.

"A lot of people used to use 'imminent danger,'" Ferraro said. However, the idea of imminent danger has developed to a long-term view of the potential danger a student can have on himself or others.

"In the situation with (Cho), fully 16 months took place between the last time he saw a therapist and the events of April 16. One of the things the states have done is extend a longer term than that ... weeks or months ahead even."

As universities place an emphasis on threat assessment, programs continue to develop to help staff and faculty when dealing with at-risk students.

Ron Goldman of Kognito Interactive in New York said that Tech officials have expressed some interest in his Web simulation program that trains staff to identify symptoms of at-risk students and start a dialogue with the student to point them toward counseling or other help.

"What you're trying to teach the faculty goes beyond knowledge," Goldman said. "You're not just teaching them the symptoms to look for. ... The most important component that you're teaching them is how to engage in that conversation with the student, how to handle that conversation, how to make that referral."

Goldman said that "Virginia Tech is from what I can tell at the very forefront of doing a variety of different things to really address this issue of mental health overall."

Ferraro emphasized the broad goals of the Tech campus and individual safety.

"With the care team and threat assessment team we have on campus, people look very carefully at individuals not simply because they are worried about another Cho. ... What you also discover is a lot of people who aren't nearly as dangerous or deadly but people who could use help."

Ferraro was not aware of Tech's interest in Goldman's program, stating that there are "lots of programs out there."

Regardless of whether the students are considered dependents, the health and safety exception allows for the disclosure of information to all parents.

The regulations were finalized on Dec. 9, 2008 and went into effect Jan. 8, 2009.

Recommended Stories