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What Is FERPA?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, commonly known as FERPA, aims to protect the privacy of student education records. This important federal law affects students in higher education, as well as those in kindergarten through high school and other education programs. The law ensures student information stays safe and gives students rights concerning their records.

FERPA, also called the Buckley Amendment, applies to schools that receive federal funding. FERPA is codified in U.S. Code Title 20, Section 1232g. It is enforced by the Student Privacy Policy Office (SPPO) in the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. secretary of education also has the authority under FERPA to deal with violations and complaints related to the act. The regulations associated with FERPA are found in the Code of Federal Regulations at 34 C.F.R. Part 99. It is important to refer to these regulations for a comprehensive understanding of FERPA.

Schools that abide by FERPA must have written procedures to comply with the act's regulations. On an annual basis, schools must also notify parents and students 18 and older of their rights under FERPA. Read on to learn more about the protections provided by FERPA.

What Is Protected Under FERPA?

Under FERPA regulations, all education records are protected. FERPA only applies to a student's education records, defined as information directly related to the student. An educational institution maintains these records. Records kept by the law enforcement unit of an educational institution are not protected under FERPA.

Information directly related to a student and maintained by an educational agency or institution is secured. This includes grades, enrollment status, financial aid details, and Social Security numbers. Details like a student's major field of study and other related information also fall under this protection.

FERPA covers all students in postsecondary institutions, regardless of their age or the level of their parent's involvement in their education. Once a student reaches age 18 or begins attending a postsecondary education institution, the rights under the law transfer from the student's parents to the student themself. Such students are often referred to as "eligible students."

The act does not require schools to keep particular education records. Instead, schools must provide privacy protections to the education records they keep. More specifically, FERPA protects personally identifiable information derived from education records. If a school official obtains information by personal observation or knowledge, that information is not protected by FERPA.

Who Has Access and Control?

Under FERPA, eligible students can inspect and review their education records. In addition, they can request that their school correct records they believe to be inaccurate or misleading. Generally, schools must have a student's consent before sharing such information with others. Before a student turns 18, their parents can access the student's records. The parents of a minor student can view, correct, and control the student's records.

After a student turns 18, they become an eligible student. Their eligibility gains them access to and control over their records. At that point, a parent can only access the student's records in two situations. One is if the student gives their consent to allow their parent to access the student records. The other is if the parent can show that they still claim the student as a dependent. The parent can provide a tax return showing the student's dependent status.

There are some other exceptions. Schools may be able to disclose directory information, such as a student's name, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. Nevertheless, schools must tell students about this type of disclosure of directory information. They must give them reasonable time to request that the school not disclose their information.

When Is Consent Not Required?

Even though student consent is usually needed, there are situations in which it is not required. This includes scenarios involving the safety of the student or others. In a safety emergency, information can be released if it is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals. Schools may also share information with other educational authorities if it serves a legitimate educational interest.

Schools usually must have written consent to share information from a student's education records. Instances in which a school can disclose a student's education record without consent include:

  • If a student transfers schools
  • To comply with a lawfully issued subpoena or judicial order
  • To accrediting organizations that request the information

Again, schools do not need consent to disclose directory information. This information includes a student's name and dates of attendance. It might also include their telephone number or honors and awards. Schools must tell parents and eligible students about the disclosure beforehand. They must allow enough time to request that the directory information not be disclosed.

Schools may sometimes disclose records to the student's parents or family members. This can happen if the parents claim the student as a dependent student for tax purposes or if a health or safety emergency involves their child.

Schools can disclose records for law enforcement purposes without consent. For example, consider a student under investigation for a crime of violence. Their school can disclose information about college students to law enforcement. Also, schools can disclose records in response to a judicial court order or subpoena. Other exceptions include disclosures to officials connected with an audit or evaluation. Schools can also disclose records to specific organizations on behalf of educational agencies.

Getting Legal Help

FERPA is an important piece of legislation that protects U.S. students' privacy by giving students rights over their educational records. It places strict rules on when and how schools can share student information. It provides means for students and parents to take action if those rights are violated. As such, every student in higher education should be aware of FERPA and the protections it provides. While it is essential to understand this law, it is equally important to consult with legal professionals when needed.

If you think your FERPA rights have been violated, you can get help. You can file a complaint with the Student Privacy Policy Office in the U.S. Department of Education. This office is responsible for enforcing FERPA. It helps students and parents understand their rights under this law. The office says complaints should be filed within 180 days.

You can also reach out to a lawyer who concentrates on education law. They can guide you through the process and protect your rights under state law. Consult with an education attorney in your area about FERPA.

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