DennisBeaverOctober 1, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver

If you are the parent of a son or daughter who is at college, today’s story about privacy will be of special interest. We begin with two extreme examples of what happens when privacy becomes an excuse for tossing common sense out the window.

Imagine just for a moment being relatives of a passenger on an airplane who was killed when its suicidal Germanwings pilot, 27-year-old Andreas Lubitz, flew it into the French Alps on March 24th, 2015.

Or, picture yourself at home when the phone rings and you hear:

“I’m sorry, but a mentally disturbed student has killed 32 teachers and students, including someone from your family.” That, of course, was the Virginia Tech shooting, which occurred on April 16th, 2007, and was committed by 23 year-old Korean student, Seung-Hui Cho.

How angry, how incredibly furious would you be when it is revealed that it all could have been prevented had the people who knew the danger spoken up? German doctors and university mental health professionals were all aware of how dangerously disturbed, delusional and suicidal these two were. Yet, silence prevailed.

The explanation? “Strict rules assuring privacy.”

Not one of the many German doctors Lubitz saw picked up the phone and called his employer, to warn them of a killer in the cockpit. They have been labeled as cowards, as were the university employees who refused to communicate to each other their fears of Cho killing someone due to concerns of violating university privacy regulations.

It was a proud moment for Benjie’s family when he was accepted into pharmacy school at one of the top rated universities in California. For his parents, it meant that all the years of hard work–long hours spent in their small Manila lumpia restaurant, and saving money–was rewarded. Their large, extended family were proud of them.

“Enrolling Benjie and getting him settled in an apartment was the first vacation we had in years,” his father explained. “You could not wipe the joy off of our faces. We were reassured that our son was in good hands by one of the deans who told us not to worry, that if Benjie had any problems–anything, academically or personally–he would phone us immediately.”

They never heard from the dean again. Why should they? Benjie reported making top grades, kept them well supplied with photos, and a year before graduation, during a visit to California for a wedding, he took mom and dad on a tour of the pharmacy school, explaining in detail what subjects he studied and in which classrooms.

“We were so proud, so happy. There was our baby, all grown-up, handsome in his white, pharmacist’s coat. My wife was in tears, and soon I was too!”

Shortly after returning to Manila a phone call would lead to tears of another sort.
Arriving home and listening to their voice-mail, the couple were stunned to hear a message from Benjie’s room-mate:

“Your son is not going to be a pharmacist. He was in pharmacy school only one semester, switched to business administration and then did an MBA. He was embarrassed, and kept the lies going all these years. He promised to tell you during your visit, but failing to do so, I just can’t look at him, and moved out. What I don’t understand is why no one from the school told you, because you are paying his tuition.”

The answer to that question is F.E.R.P.A. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and applies to all schools that receive funding from the United States Department of Education, its website describing the law as:

“Designed to protect students’ privacy by giving parents access to educational records, but not to ‘outside parties’ unless a release, signed by a parent, is first obtained.”

That makes good sense, as prior to this law, schools across the country were profiting from students’ personal information.
But guess who becomes an “outside party” when the student turns 18? Mom and Dad, that’s who! And it doesn’t matter who is paying the tuition! If the student refuses to sign an authorization, faculty can’t legally talk with the parents.

“FERPA is dangerous,” one university Student Health Director told us. “We are forced to violate the law in order to care for students who have significant, on-going emotional issues. Parents are the last people they want to know about their health, often refusing to sign an authorization for us to speak with family members.”

Next time we look at what parents need to do and what donors must know before they give their money to a university.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.