Dec 082012
 December 8, 2012  Posted by  Youth & Schools

Maggie O’Brien reports on a case in Nebraska that, sadly, is all too frequent:

A fight between two Millard eighth-graders illustrates the problem parents and educators face when rules on student privacy clash with student safety.

Mike Orcutt is upset that Kiewit Middle School administrators won’t reveal how they are disciplining a student who, he says, threatened his son at school.

Orcutt said his son received a half-day, in-school suspension for a fight. But he wants to know what type of punishment was given to the other boy.

Millard School District officials say student privacy laws prevent them from disclosing such information.


From experience, I understand both sides the concern. The parents need to feel confident that their children will be safe and the schools need to protect student privacy.  The conflict in this case and many others like it arise because of a  parent’s desire to know how another student has been disciplined or punished.  In my opinion, that’s the wrong question to be asking, anyway, as punishing or disciplining the other student doesn’t necessarily prevent future incidents in the school – unless the other student has been expelled, in which case the future risk may not be on the school grounds but off of them.

Parents cannot demand that to know what the school will do about another student’s behavior. But they can legitimately – and should, in my opinion – ask how the school plans to keep their child safe. Here’s how I worked around what might have been a FERPA impasse when it happened to me:

Years ago, I got a phone call from my child’s school to tell me that there had been an incident involving another student. My first question, of course, was “Is my child okay?” My second question was, “Did my child contribute to this incident? Do we need to deal with my child’s behavior?” Upon being told that my child had done nothing wrong at all either before or during the incident, I said, “Okay, I’m not going to ask you any questions about the other child because I understand your obligations to protect that student’s privacy, and I hope that child gets any help they need, but I do have one important question: how will you keep my child safe from this other child?”

It’s a legitimate question and the school official – without ever naming the other child or disclosing whether that child had any psychiatric or other problems (I assumed s/he did from the description of the incident) — was able to tell me what protections for my child would be implemented. I thanked the school official for the call, and the school official thanked me for my understanding and for not putting her on the spot by asking her questions she would not have been able to answer. And that was the end of it…. for a long time.

And then one day, I got another call to tell me that there had been an incident. Again, my first questions were “Is my child okay?” and “Did my child contribute to the incident in any way?” Then I asked, “Is this the same student who attacked my child two years ago?” Notice I never asked for a name (I could always ask my child for that). When the school official told me that it was, indeed, the same student, I said, “Okay, well now this is going to get a bit more difficult because my child was supposed to be protected from this other child, and somehow, the school’s plan didn’t work. So – since this has happened twice now and the next time my child might be seriously hurt or worse  – I’m going to ask you again: how will you keep my child safe in your school building? What are you going to do differently now so that this doesn’t happen again?”

Note that I did not ask how the other child would be disciplined or handled. Nor did I suggest or demand that they handle the other student in any particular way. I simply kept the focus on how they would keep my child safe. And at that point, the school understood that they they needed to be able to articulate an actual plan that would give me some peace of mind that my child would be safe in their building.  Instead of fighting with my child’s school, then, these discussions were actually quite cordial, even though it was clear that I was very firm in expecting the school to have an effective and proactive plan to prevent trouble.

There were no additional problems over the next few years that he remained in that school.

As a parent, if you do not feel the school can keep your child safe, you should not be sending them off to that school each day. And you have a right to know how a school will keep your child safe. So rather than get caught up in a debate about FERPA, simply keep the discussion and the focus on your child and how s/he will be kept safe. Recognizing the school’s responsibility to protect another student’s privacy does not mean you cannot get the information that you really need – which is how your child will be kept safe and how future problems will be prevented.


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