FERPA permits parental notification policy

Analysis | Penn's little-known policy lets the University contact parents after a student's second hospitalization for alcohol or other drug use

· February 26, 2014, 9:01 pm   ·  Updated February 27, 2014, 5:40 pm

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A little-known University policy, which was cited in a recent campus study, states that if a student is hospitalized twice for alcohol or other drug use, the student’s parents can be contacted.

The policy, which was mentioned in last Tuesday’s Report of the Commission on Student Safety, Alcohol and Campus Life, said that “if a student is transported to the hospital a second time (or more) due to alcohol or other drug use, the University reserves the right to notify his or her parents.” For minors - students under 18 years old - the University’s policy is to immediately notify parents.

This policy comes in similar forms at colleges across the country. It’s legality stems from exceptions in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA.

At Penn, 36 parental notifications were made during the 2012-13 academic year, according to the Commission’s report.

Julie Lyzinski Nettleton, director for the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives and project manager of the Commission, said that each year, about 10 percent of hospital transports related to alcohol or other drug use are “repeated transports” - which means that parents are usually notified in these cases.

Nettleton explained in an email that personnel from AOD “contact parents on a case by case basis after any student has had multiple transports to the hospital.”

She emphasized that the parental notifications are “proactive, not punitive” and that the University has had “tremendous success engaging both the student and parents in a caring action plan to support the student so they may be safe and successful at Penn.”

While FERPA contains provisions that maintain the privacy of students’ educational records, it still guarantees Penn the legal right to notify students’ parents about hospitalizations under certain conditions.

“FERPA [permits] a university to notify a student’s parents [if the student] is under age 21, if that student has violated any law or university policy related to alcohol or controlled substances,” Preston Green, a professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in educational law said.

Jacob Rooksby, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law, explained that universities can disclose this hospitalization information if they believe that the “disclosure is necessary ‘to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals.’”

Penn can also apply the parental notification policy to students who are 21 or older, Rooksby said, because repeated hospitalizations for alcohol or other drug use could be “in connection with [a] health or safety emergency” for the student or other students, as outlined in FERPA.

But these exceptions by no means require that institutions like Penn disclose this information to parents, and each institution can exercise its discretion in determining its own policies.

While Penn’s policy states the University can notify parents after two incidents, Rooksby said that FERPA “does not establish a magic number of hospitalizations before disclosure to one’s parents without consent is permitted.”

Policies like Penn’s exist at other institutions as well, but have their nuances.

At Cornell University, for example, a “Judicial Administrator” determines whether a certain alcohol or drug related incident warrants a parental notification. Incidents that get referred to this official can include underage possession of alcohol or possession of other drugs or an illegal ID.

Parents aren’t notified after a student’s first offense. After a second offense, though, Cornell may send a letter to parents, if the university thinks it’s necessary. However, the university might consider mitigating factors, like if the incident concerns Cornell’s medical amnesty policy, when determining whether to contact parents. For a third offense, it is clear that parents may be contacted.

If Cornell officials decide to carry out a parental notification, however, the student would “be informed of planned communication in advance,” would be “encouraged to communicate with parents” before the university contacts them and would be “provided ample opportunity to express concern” before the contact occurs, according to Cornell’s policy.

In Rooksby’s opinion, policies like Penn’s are “a good idea.”

“Institutions should always be concerned about student health and safety,” Rooksby said. “Even though FERPA never obligates them to disclose without consent, if a disclosure ... could help the student overcome a drug or alcohol problem, institutions face a moral imperative to act.”

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