US Dept of Ed Asks for Comments on Privacy, Student Records


The United States Department of Education has issued draft guidance in a ‘Dear Colleagues’ letter to schools across the nation concerning how student medical records should be treated on all college campuses.

The effort comes on the part of the Obama administration, who is working to protect the privacy of students while ensuring that all institutes of higher education offer their students a safe and healthy atmosphere on campus.  In order to do so, the Department of Education’s Chief Privacy Officer is looking to members of the higher education community to offer their opinions concerning how best to protect student medical records from inappropriate disclosure.

“Institutions of higher education have a strong interest in ensuring that students have uncompromised access to the support they need, without fear that the information they share will be disclosed inappropriately,” said Department of Education Chief Privacy Officer Kathleen Styles. “Protecting the privacy of student education records has never been more important to the Department, which is why we are seeking the input from students and members of the higher education community on this important but technically complex issue.”

In particular, the department is looking for input as to whether the guidance, as it is written, could create any unintended consequences.  In addition, they would like opinions as to whether the weight of the guidance could be lessened for institutions without changing the protection it offers students, as well as ways to increase the guidance to allow for the protection of K-12 students and early childhood.  The department is accepting comments on these topics through October 2.

While the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does provide privacy protection for certain student records within institutions, it cannot take the place of state laws concerning privacy protection.  In addition, FERPA allows for the release of student records under certain circumstances without student consent.

The draft guidance was created in the hopes of creating clear guidelines concerning litigation between students and institutes of higher education.  In these cases, the DOE argues student medical records should not be shared with school attorneys or courts without a court order or written consent unless the litigation pertains to treatment or payment, writes Tyler Kingkade for The Huffington Post.

Controversy has surrounded several universities recently that have asked attending students who reported sexual assaults to give up their federal privacy rights in order to allow schools to investigate therapy records.

Kathleen Styles, the department’s chief privacy officer warned that the benefits of on-campus medical services “cannot be fully realized in an environment where trust between students and the institution is undermined. Students should not be hesitant to use the institution’s medical services out of fear that information they share with a medical professional will be inappropriately disclosed to others.”