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The right to privacy versus the right to know.

WHEN DOES A STUDENT'S RIGHT TO PRIVACY outweigh the right for the parents to be informed, particularly with mental health issues?

With the Virginia Tech tragedy and court cases involving parents versus IHEs, the meaning behind the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 is still in question. A child psychologist, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), seeks to modify FERPA. The proposed Mental Health Security for America's Families in Education Act intends to allow schools and universities to share a student's mental health information with parents or guardians if the student is found to be at risk of suicide, or committing homicide or physical assault. Its purpose is also to enable parents to help their child.

Murphy's interest in this matter began with a tragedy involving Allegheny College (Pa.) student Charles Mahoney, who hung himself in February 2002. His suicide had culminated from a downward spiral in a battle with depression. A year later, his parents filed a lawsuit against Allegheny and two of the professionals who treated their son, saying they might have prevented his death but failed to intervene, even after observing clear signs that he posed an immediate threat to himself. In 2006, a jury sided with Allegheny, concurring that since Mahoney had not signed a waiver allowing the school to break his confidentiality, there was no way they could contact his parents.

Nancy Tribbensee, general counsel for the Arizona University System, thinks Murphy's proposed amendment is not necessary, saying FERPA currently permits institutions to disclose educational records, in connection with a health or safety emergency, to appropriate parties if the knowledge of this information is necessary to protect the student's safety as well as other people.

"FERPA is not currently an obstacle to communicating with families," Tribbensee adds, in that it presently permits administrators to notify relatives.

For example, at Arizona State University, parents or other appropriate individuals are contacted when the institution becomes aware of serious health or safety issues regarding a student, Tribbensee explains.

Ada Meloy, director of Legal and Regulatory Affairs, American Council on Education describes balancing privacy and personal safety as "a very sensitive process," says. "I think that the proposal recognizes the difficulty that colleges face when they are caught between the need to preserve the privacy of students or medical records and the need to take action that is believed to be in the best interest of the campus community."

With the bill, Meloy suggests it might be best to first consult with college officials, who have approached this issue from different vantage points, so they could jointly reflect on what's best before rushing into legislation.
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Title Annotation:BEHIND the NEWS
Author:Herrmann, Michele
Publication:University Business
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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