Laura Nightengale reports:
A Bartonville family’s tragedy prompted the creation a new law that will give colleges the ability to share students’ mental health information with parents.
It wasn’t until after the death of their son, Chris, who was a freshman at Illinois State University last year, that Mike and Kim Predmore learned Chris had been struggling with mental health issues or contemplating suicide.
“As a parent my heart breaks for them. A year ago at this time they were taking their son, Chris, to college for the first time,” said state Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “They had no idea that he was having some problems that first semester. It was really not until after he committed suicide that they asked the college, ‘Why didn’t you let us know that something was going on?’”
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So Illinois just enacted a law that that gives college students the opportunity to authorize a university to share mental health records with parents or a trusted adult. “The waiver will be part of the standard paperwork that students fill out when they enroll, which Koehler said gives families the opportunity to discuss mental health early on.” But universities would only be authorized to share information if a student is thought to be a danger to himself or herself or to others.
But was that even necessary? Back in 2008, the U.S. Education Dept. and HHS issued a joint guidance on FERPA and HIPAA. One of the questions in their guidance was this:
14. Does FERPA permit a postsecondary institution to disclose a student’s treatment records or education records to law enforcement, the student’s parents, or others if the institution believes the student presents a serious danger to self or others?
An eligible student’s education records and treatment records (which are considered education records if used or made available for any purpose other than the eligible student’s treatment) may be disclosed, without consent, if the disclosure meets one of the exceptions to FERPA’s general consent rule. See 34 CFR § 99.31. One of the permitted disclosures is to appropriate parties, which may include law enforcement or parents of a student, in connection with an emergency if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals. See 34 CFR §§ 99.31(a)(10) and 99.36.
There are other exceptions that apply to disclosing information to parents of eligible students that are discussed on the “Safe Schools & FERPA” Web page, as well as other information that should be helpful to school officials, at: http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/safeschools/index.html/.
So there is already some provision for sharing, without consent, when the student may be a danger to him/herself or others. There’s also an exception that allows a school official to share with a parent information that is based on that official’s personal knowledge or observation of the student. And there’s also provision for schools to share when parents are paying the tuition/student’s bills.
Why that sharing didn’t happen in this particular case is not known to me. Having a waiver form is a good idea, but even without it, mechanisms are in place if school personnel need to access them to help a student. I suspect the problem is that they don’t understand FERPA well enough or are fearful of liability for disclosure. And that concerns me because this will continue to happen in places where there is no such waiver or even in Illinois if a student doesn’t sign a waiver.
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