FERPA and Campus Safety

Although fortunately it's still rare, a student's statements or behavior may sometimes raise concerns regarding the safety of the student or others. To prevent such harm from occurring, college and university administrators, faculty, and staff who become aware of such statements or behaviors may want to tell someone else, another campus employee, a parent, an outside health care professional, a law enforcement officer, or those with whom the student may interact about what they know or believe. They also may be concerned, however, that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the federal statute that governs disclosure of student records and information, prevents them from doing so.

Concerns about the ability to communicate critical information in an emergency are, in large part, the result of misunderstandings about FERPA. We offer the following information to demonstrate that FERPA is not a significant obstacle to appropriate (and desirable) communications intended to protect student, campus, or public safety. Depending on the relevant context and jurisdiction, however, additional restrictions may arise under other applicable state or federal laws, which are beyond the scope of this Note.

FERPA permits the disclosure of information from student education records to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals. For example, if a student sends an email to their resident advisor saying that they have just been diagnosed with a highly contagious disease such as measles, the institution could alert the student's roommate, and perhaps others with whom the student has come in close contact, to urge them to seek appropriate testing and medical care. Safety concerns warranting disclosure could include a student's suicidal statements or ideations, unusually erratic and angry behaviors, or similar conduct that others would reasonably see as posing a risk of serious harm.

The CARE Team is not tasked with responding to emergencies. If this is an emergency and you are in need of immediate assistance contact University Police at 898-5555.

This exception does not authorize knee-jerk or (in most cases) broadcast disclosures, but a limited disclosure to a limited number of people, made on the basis of a good-faith determination in light of the facts available at the time, and is highly unlikely to be deemed a violation of FERPA, even if the perceived emergency later turns out, in hindsight, not to have been one. In general, and when reasonably possible, the initial disclosure should be made to professionals trained to evaluate and handle such emergencies, such as campus mental health or law enforcement personnel, who can then determine whether further and broader disclosures are appropriate. (NACUANOTES, August 6, 2007 Vol. 5, No. 4)