Major Concepts in FERPA
The major concepts in FERPA are as follows:
- Most student records at the university are considered "education records" that are protected by FERPA, including computer records.
- The student has the right to access and review his/her education records.
- All education records are confidential (except directory information in most cases) and cannot be disclosed unless the student consents or the request fits one of the exceptions.
- Faculty and staff generally may not see a student's education records without first identifying a legitimate educational interest or one of the other exceptions under which records may be reviewed.
- Parents do not have an automatic right to view their children's postsecondary education records.
Who is a Student?
A student is any individual who is or has been in attendance at the University and regarding whom the University maintains education records.
It is important to note that the term "attendance" includes but is not limited to:
- Attendance in person or by correspondence; and
- The period during which a person is working under a work-study program.
What is an Education Record?
An education record includes any information or data recorded in any medium, including but not limited to, handwriting, print, tapes, film, e-mail, microfilm, and microfiche, which is directly related to a student and maintained by the University or by a person acting for the University.
Examples of an education record include:
- Admissions information for students who are accepted and enrolled;
- Biographical information including date and place of birth, gender, nationality, information about race and ethnicity, and identification photographs;
- Grades, test scores, evaluations, courses taken, academic specialization, and activities, and official communications regarding a student's status;
- Course work including papers and exams, class schedules, as well as written, e-mail or recorded communications that are part of the academic process;
- Disciplinary records;
- Students' financial and financial aid records;
- Internship program records.
A vendor that has a data tape containing all students' social security numbers, names, amounts paid in tuition, etc., for the purpose of mailing forms required by tax law, would be subject to the confidentiality requirements of FERPA.
Exceptions do Exist With any Law and the Following are Excluded From the Definition of an Education Record:
- University law enforcement records;
- Employment records when the employment is not connected to student status (for example, a staff member who also happens to be pursuing a degree at the institution, not to be confused with a student who is on a federal work-study program);
- Medical and mental health records used only for treatment of the student;
- Alumni records which do not relate to or contain information about the person as a student; and
- “Sole possession records,” (faculty and staff personal records not shared with others and only for the personal use of the maker).
The term “sole possession records” is intended to cover memory aids or reference tools. It does not refer to records that contain information provided directly by a student or records that are used to make decisions about a student. As such, this is a very limited exception. For example, personal notes from a committee meeting recommending students for a particular program would not be considered sole possession records if they are used to make a decision about a student.
FERPA Recognized Exceptions
FERPA law defines a number of other circumstances besides the release of directory information in which an education record can be released to certain parties without written permission from the student. Here are some examples:
- State and local educational authorities when allowed by statute;
- School official or lending institutions in connection with financial aid for which the student has applied or which the student has received, if certain conditions are met;
- An alleged victim of a crime of violence has a right to learn the results of a disciplinary proceeding conducted by the institution against the alleged perpetrator of the crime;
- The parents of a “dependent student,” as defined in Internal Revenue Code, when the parent has provided a notarized affidavit, along with a copy of the relevant page of the parent’s most recent income tax return indicating the student’s dependent status. Affidavits must be updated annually, otherwise, prior written permission from the student is required;
- Appropriate persons in connection with an emergency, in order to protect the health or safety of the student or others;
- The Attorney General or his/her representatives for law enforcement purposes;
- Pursuant to a lawfully issued subpoena or to comply with a judicial order*; and
- A school official who has a legitimate educational interest in the records.
*Although information may be released pursuant to a subpoena, a release under this exception should not be made without first contacting the Admissions & Records Office.
Legitimate Educational Interests
A faculty or staff member has a legitimate educational interest in accessing or reviewing a student’s educational records, if the faculty or staff member is:
- Performing a task that is specified in his/her position description or contract;
- Performing a task related to a student’s education or to student discipline;
- Providing a service or benefit related to the student or student’s family; or
- Maintaining safety and security on campus.
An example of a legitimate educational interest would include an academic advisor who needs to review a student’s education record to determine what courses have been and/or need to be completed. This is a task related to advising the student. The advisor would not be authorized to view education records that are not relevant to the task at hand.
Education records cannot be released to someone other than the faculty member or the school official (for example, an academic advisor) who has a legitimate educational interest unless the student has given written permission for the additional disclosure, or if a legitimate interest has been articulated for disclosure to the other party.
Records not Protected by FERPA
Keep in Mind, Though a Record is not Protected by FERPA, it Does not Mean that the Record can be Freely Released
It is important to respect the privacy of students. Other laws protect employment and medical records. Medical records that are used to accommodate a disability should be kept separately from a student’s “education records.”
FERPA protects the privacy of all “education records” in any medium, maintained by the University. Although the law was written in 1974, its coverage is not limited to paper copies. All student education records, including records about the students contained in computer databases, are protected. This includes computerized student records in the admissions office, career center, financial aid office, the library, and numerous other offices.
Obtain written consent from students before disclosing any personally identifiable information from their education records to third parties.
- “Personally identifiable” means that the information would make the student’s identity easily traceable. Some examples include, but are not limited to, the student’s name, the student’s parent or other family members’ name; the address of the student or student’s family; or a personal identifier such as the student’s ID number or social security number.
Adequate written consent must state the following:
- The precise records to be disclosed,
- The purpose of the disclosure,
- To whom the disclosure may be made; and be signed and dated by the student.
Disclosure of Education Records
Student education records may not be disclosed to anyone unless:
- The student has given written consent, or
- The request fits one of the legal exceptions.
One exception is the release of “directory information” about a student. Consent from a student is not generally required for the release of directory information and it may be viewed and released to the public, unless the student has placed an affirmative “restriction” on its release. Schools must inform students about directory information and allow them a reasonable amount of time to request that no information be disclosed.
The Registrar is charged with defining “directory information” at La Sierra University. At the present time, La Sierra University defines directory information as the following:
- Student’s name;
- Date and place of birth;
- Local/residence hall address (no dorm room numbers);
- Local/residence hall telephone number;
- Official university electronic mail address;
- Enrollment status;
- Class standing/classification;
- Academic program (degree, major, minor);
- Dates of attendance;
- Status (full or part time);
- Degrees received;
- Residency status;
- Participation in officially recognized activities; and
- Weight and height of members of athletic teams.
In order to withhold directory information, students must complete a form at the Admissions and Records Office in order to make their file "confidential." Names of these students will not appear in the student directory, perspectives, or the commencement program unless the student gives specific authorization.
Education records may be disclosed to/by:
- Officials of another postsecondary institution where a student seeks or intends to enroll;
- Individuals and agencies who are identified as agents acting on behalf of the University, providing they have a legitimate educational interest;
- A lawfully issued subpoena, court order, or mandated reporting to state and/or federal educational agencies;
- Organizations conducting studies for, or on behalf of, the University.
Note: Directory information does not fall under this category if it has been designated as such by the University.
Who is a School Official?
A school official is:
- A person employed by the university at a managerial, supervisory, academic research, or support staff position;
- A person or company with whom the University has contracted;
- A person serving on the Board of Trustees;
- A student serving in an official capacity.
Before releasing directory information, you must check to see if the student has placed a restriction on the release of his/her directory information. This can be done by checking the student information systems (BANNER), or by contacting the Admissions & Records Office.
In general, a student has the right to access and review his/her education records, subject only to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. However, a student does not have the right to see confidential letters of recommendation (those to which the student has waived access to in writing), confidential financial information of parents, those items not defined as education records, and records that contain information on more than one student. In the last instance, the student may see only those portions of the record that pertain to him/herself.
If there is any doubt about a student’s identity, ask to see some form of identification before granting the student access to the file requested.
"Keeper" of the Record
With the advent of computer technology and the student information system online, every faculty and staff member who is able to access information online is a “record keeper.” The granting of access will make retrieving student record information much easier for the employees of the University and will, in many ways, facilitate the provision of a quality education to all students. The granting of access carries with it a bond of trust which will require close attention by all users to the following principles:
- The faculty or staff member must read and be familiar with FERPA regulations;
- When accessing the online system, the faculty or staff member must access only that information needed to complete the authorized task; and
- The information obtained through the online system may only be communicated to other parties authorized to have access under FERPA regulations.
Parent Access to Student Records
One area of the law that generates confusion is the right of a parent to access student record information. If the student is not a dependent for tax purposes (and this may be the case with many graduate students), the parent has no right to access student record information about the child unless the parent has the child’s written permission. Parents stand in the same shoes as any outside party in this situation. Affidavits of parental claims and records of student permission are maintained in the Admissions & Records Office.
If a student is claimed by a parent as a dependent for income tax purposes, then the student record information may be released at the discretion of the University to the parent as long as a notarized affidavit, along with a copy of the relevant page from the parent’s most recent income tax return indicating the student’s dependent status, is provided to the university. Affidavits must be updated annually; otherwise, prior written permission from the student is required. Full rights are given to either parent, regardless of who claims the child as a dependent, unless the institution has been provided with evidence that there is a court order, state statute, or legally binding document limiting those rights such as divorce, separation or custody orders.
Pursuant to recent changes by Congress intended to address the problem of alcohol and drug abuse at colleges and universities, the University also has the discretion to disclose to any parent or legal guardian of a student, who is under the age of 21, information about a violation of any federal, state or local law, or any rule or policy of the institution governing the use or possession of alcohol or a controlled substance, if the institution determines that the student has committed a disciplinary violation with respect to such use or possession.
Email and Computer Guidelines
It is recommended that a confidentiality statement be included with all outgoing emails.
- Example: “Confidentiality: This e-mail (including any attachments) may contain confidential, proprietary and privileged information, and unauthorized disclosure or use is prohibited. If you receive this e-mail in error, please notify the sender and delete this e-mail from your system.”
- When emailing non-directory information (including conversations related to academic performance), keep all contact within the University server only—LSU email addresses to LSU email addresses.
- Never leave your computer screen unlocked and unattended. If you are viewing an education record which is freely displayed on your computer screen and another person happens to see it, the University will be held liable.
- It is usually a good idea to lock your computer every time you step away from it.
- The University must have written permission from the student in order to release any information from a student’s educational record.
- Consider everyone other than the student a third party, including the student’s parents and friends.
- If a student approaches you in public to discuss a grade or test score, try to move the conversation to a private venue.
- A student cannot be required or coerced into providing written permission for the release of his/her education records.
- Get the student’s written request for letters of recommendation.
- If you are contacted by an individual or agency seeking information about student educational records, refer them to the Records Office.
- Do not post grades publicly unless done so under a private code (for example, do NOT use an ID number or full/partial name). The code must not be personally identifiable.
- Do not send grades via postcard, fax or email. These media do not guarantee confidentiality, and may be considered violations of FERPA.
- Never discuss grades, academic performance or other non-directory information over the phone.
- If you have questions regarding FERPA compliance, please refer them to the Records Office and Records at x2006 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Should any complaints ever need to be filed, please send them to:
Family Policy Compliance Office
US Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave SW
Washington, D.C. 20202-5920
Warnings Against Non-Compliance
- Non-compliant institutions may lose federal funding.
- Punishment may include imprisonment in the county jail for not more than 6 months or a fine not to exceed $1,000 or both.
- Organizations conducting studies must destroy student files when no longer needed. Failure to do so could lead to a five-year ban on the disclosure of information to that organization.
- The Supreme Court has upheld that educational institutions cannot be sued for alleged violations of FERPA. They CAN be sued in civil actions for libel and/or slander.
Additional resources regarding FERPA can be found using the links below: