Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) – What college teachers need to know is that FERPA prohibits them from sharing information about students’ educational records with anyone inside and outside the college who does not have the right to know. There are a couple exceptions. Students may pr0vide written consent, but my advice is to consult with a college administrator before complying with requests.
Dealing with Parents Who Want to Know
When a belligerent father demands to know if his son is attending class, explain that you cannot answer. If an angry mother wants to know why her daughter failed the last exam, request that the daughter talk to you directly. If someone wants to know if a particular person is attending your class, you cannot comment on that. For all you know it could be an ex-boyfriend with less than honorable intentions. My wife is a counselor, and she tells me that former boyfriends and husbands with restraining orders use this questioning tactic to track down their ex’s.
Also, be careful when leaving telephone message for students. You cannot be sure that only your student will hear your message. Give nothing more than your name, the name of your college, and the number you wish your student to call. Law suits have arisen when FERPA statutes has been violated.
Maintaining Student Confidentiality
In some ways FERPA regulations are nothing more than common sense courtesy. High achieving students may not mind it if you tell the class about their most recent academic accomplishment. Those who are doing less well may be angered. Occasionally I hear from students who claim their instructor made their grades known to others. Not only does public humiliation not work, it is against the law!
Be careful that you are not “accidentally” sharing information with others. Just because you put papers face down on your desk does not mean that students will not turn over an assignment from someone else. A well intending science teacher I know put student grades in a spreadsheet. Then he hid the columns that included students’ names leaving only the private student identification numbers viewable. Next he posted the spreadsheet on his website. OOPS!!! He did not realize that the imbedded spreadsheet code for hiding columns was stripped away when he transferred a spreadsheet. Every student knew every other student’s grades.
Rights to Privacy and You
College differs from high school in many ways. One of those ways is that there are far fewer parents’ rights. Teachers do not meet with parents to discuss their children’s performance. Teachers do not send grade reports to parents. Granted, a parent who can prove that he/she is financially responsible for a student may be entitled to otherwise confidential information. However, the wise college instructor errs on the conservative side. No matter how demanding a parent, a college instructor should not give in. It is always wise to be courteous and refer a demanding parent to an administrator.
As a college faculty member, you might want to think about it this way. Would you want your students and their parents to know the details of your student evaluations? Many of you receive excellent evaluations, but few of you receive perfect evaluations. What about that totally off-base student who cut half the classes and who wrote that you did not teach him anything? And what if you did let your students down by not returning graded assignments in timely fashion because you were in the hospital recovering from an emergency appendectomy? Would you want everyone to know the truth without the justification?
Or think of it this way. If you are on the FBI’s most wanted list, would you want one of your students to tell the Feds that someone apparently using an alias and having dyed her hair was teaching your ethics class every Tuesday evening at 6:30? I am sure that none of you dedicated instructors who read my articles fall into this category. But if you are a brand new follower who has not passed the test of time, get with it. Don’t be stupid. Hide the truth from your students and me.
On the other hand, there was that Environmental Ecology professor who refused to put his Mountain Dew bottles in the glass recycling container. You have to agree that he deserved to be turned in by those failing students who ratted on him. Of course, the fact that he needed that much caffeine to stay awake during his own lectures is a hint that he was not a professor-of-the-year finalist.
© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.
July 6, 2011