FERPA Advice for New Teachers

FERPA Advice for New Teachers
The Editorial Team September 26, 2012

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Protecting the privacy of students and safeguarding the confidentiality of their records is a responsibility that must be addressed by every public school. FERPA, or the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, was enacted into Federal law in 1974 and serves to help keep these records safe from public view.

Protecting private educational records

The FERPA protects the private educational records of students from unauthorized parties. Any information that personally identifies the individual must be kept confidential and under this provision, third parties have very limited access to the records.

Access for students and parents to their educational records

The FERPA allows students and parents access to educational records. Educational records include files, documents and other material maintained by the educational institution that is directly related to the student. A student’s grades or written comments about their performance in class are examples of educational records that must be released to the child and his or her parents.

Individual records for a teacher’s use only

Under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a teacher does not have to reveal any individual records they may keep for their use only. Those records are considered personal and are not made available to the school or any other third party. Such records may be shared with a substitute teacher, if, for instance, they affect the way the substitute must deal with the student.

Penalties for not complying with FERPA

If a teacher, who is a representative of the school, does not protect the privacy of a student’s educational records as outlined in the law, the teacher and the school may both face serious consequences. While revealing a child’s grades to the rest of the class might not seem like a serious offense, it is a prohibited behavior under FERPA.

A school that is charged and convicted of privacy violations can lose their federal funding. In reality, courts have ruled that an accidental disclosure of some information that should have been kept private is not sufficient to withhold federal funding. If the school maintains a policy of disclosing sensitive personal information through its policies, they are then likely to be warned and, if the situation is not remedied, lose their funding.

Exceptions for third-party disclosure

There are certain instances where a school is allowed to share private student information with other parties:

  • Other educators or officials within the same school who have legitimate educational interests in the student.
  • When disclosure of information is necessary to protect the safety and health of the student.
  • Another school to which a student is transferring.
  • In order to comply with a judicial order.
  • Interested parties who are determining a student’s financial aid eligibility.

What kind of information can be released without a student’s consent?

Teachers should be aware of the types of information that does not require consent before it is released. Known as directory information, it includes such things as a student’s name, address, e-mail address, place of birth, class level and any degrees that have been earned.

Information that cannot be released

Everything else, called non-directory information, must remain private until student’s consent is obtained. Teachers can not post test scores from the class on a bulletin board or ask another student to distribute graded papers to the class. Graded work can not be stacked in a box for students to go through and take their papers. A teacher cannot post a list of class grades on the internet.

While a student’s work can be evaluated by the class for learning purposes, once it is graded by the teacher, it is off limits for public view. If a teacher wants to write a letter of recommendation using non-directory information, the teacher must first get the permission from the student.

The basic rule is any non-directory information cannot be revealed without the prior consent from the student.

A few tips to avoid trouble

In general, use common sense and your best judgment to comply with the FERPA rules. If a teacher is in his or her office, reviewing a student’s file online, and another student walks in, the screen should not be in the student’s range of vision. One should never leave a computer unattended when student records can be viewed with the click of a mouse. Finally, any printed documents that contain a student’s personal information should be shredded once they are no longer needed.

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