Lawmakers seek to alter student privacy standards


In light of the Virginia Tech University massacre, many people have been talking about changing the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Lawmaker Tim Murphy, R-Pa., in Washington, D.C., wants to “better define when a university can release students’ mental health information to their parents without fear of violating privacy laws,” according to an article in the Washington Post.

But Sherry Benton, assistant director of K-State Counseling Services, disagrees. She said she thinks the way counseling services operates just how it should and that making any more policy changes will constitute a very slippery slope.

Benton said there are three parts that make up K-State’s privacy code: the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which states that anyone older than 18 has the right and sole confidentiality to their academic records; the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which controls anything counseling services and K-State mails, or that goes to insurance companies; and the Kansas state laws about confidentiality and regulations for mental health professionals and ethical codes.

Benton said any record at the counseling center stays completely confidential and will not be released to any other party without written permission from the student unless he or she is in eminent danger to him or herself or others. She said counseling services typically tries to get students who are in danger to call their parents from the counseling office. Almost always, if a student is at that point, Benton said the student is more than happy to make the call.

“Our preference is to talk to the parent, or whomever, with the student there so there is no confusion of what we’re going to talk about and what we’re not going to talk about,” she said.

If laws are changed and students know counselors might be releasing information to parents without their consent, Benton said the trust students have in their counselors and how freely they open up will undoubtedly diminish.

Christina Stecich, sophomore in bakery science management, said if she were in counseling for any reason, she would feel violated if her parents had complete access to her medical files and she posed no danger in her mental health ability.

But Jennifer VanSchoelandt, junior in finance, said it would make no difference to her.

“I share all my college and medical bills with my parents,” she said. “I wouldn’t really care if they had access to my records because they’re going to find out from me anyway.”

But Benton said not all students are like VanSchoelandt. Changing the law so that parents are notified could lead to all kinds of negative situations, she said. Many times, she said, students have been waiting to come to college to seek counseling because their issues might by family-oriented, and they do not necessarily want their parents to know about it. She also said that with most students seen by counseling services, talking to families is unnecessary.

Even though some may argue that redefining FERPA could have prevented the Virginia Tech shootings, Benton said she thinks the laws should stay as they are.

She said the big issue was that the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was not in treatment. He refused it and had stopped taking medication. Benton said she thinks it should not matter if someone is in treatment or not, but that if someone is in serious danger to himself or others, parents or guardians should be notified immediately.

“Always, our primary issue is to do the best we can for the students – to keep information confidential whenever we can, as far as we can, but to make sure their safety comes before confidentially,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing about how we operate here.”