The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

As lawyers who routinely represent high school, college, and graduate students in disputes with their schools, one area that often comes up is student records and how those are maintained and shared. The collection and maintenance of a record for each student is governed by a federal law—the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”).

What is in My Education Record?

FERPA defines education records as those records that are: “(1) Directly related to a student; and (2) Maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution.” Records of disciplinary matters that relate to a student are considered “education records” under FERPA. This definition generally does not include employment records of school employees (so long as they do not “directly relate” to a student), records of school law enforcement agency (i.e. campus police), or doctor or psychologist records made in connection with treatment of a student.

What Can a School Do with My Education Record?

FERPA generally prohibits schools from disclosing “personally identifiable information” from a student’s record without written consent from the student or their parent. “Personally identifiable information” includes a student’s name, names of a student’s family members, the student’s address, personal identifiers (e.g. a social security number), or any information that “alone or in combination” could allow someone in the school community to identify the student.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. For example, schools can disclose information to other school officials within the institution if it decides they have “legitimate educational interests” in the information. Schools can also disclose personally identifiable information in connection with the student’s application for financial aid. Schools must keep records of the requests for access they receive, and to whom they have provided information from student records. Schools also may disclose “directory information” if it gives students and parents notice that it will do that, and the opportunity to opt out in writing.

One other important exception is that schools can (and under a law called the Clery Act must) disclose the final results of disciplinary proceedings involving allegations of crimes of violence, where the accused student is found to have violated the school’s policies. In addition, schools can disclose the outcome of such disciplinary proceedings no matter what the outcome is to the alleged victim of the crime. The information that can be disclosed includes the name of the student, the violation found, and the sanction imposed.

How Can I Get Access to My Education Record?

Students, or their parents if the student is under 18, have the right to inspect their education records within 45 days of making a request to inspect. If circumstances prevent the parent or student from effectively accessing the record, the school must send it to them. If the student or parent believes the record is inaccurate or misleading, it can request that the school amend the record. If the student or parent so requests, the school must give the parent or student a hearing. If the school decides the information in the record is inaccurate, misleading, or violates the student’s privacy, it must amend the record. If it does not agree with the parent or student, the parent or student has a right to place their own statement in the record addressing the contested information.

What if My School is Not Following FERPA?

An important thing to understand about FERPA is that it does not confer a private right of action on students, meaning students cannot enforce their FERPA rights in court. If you believe your school or your child’s school is not complying with FERPA, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. It is important to note that a complaint must be filed within 180 days of the violation, or 180 days of when you became aware of the violation.

If you are looking for a lawyer to represent you or your child in an academic matter, please contact us at 617-742-6020.

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