Notification Law Pits Safety vs. Privacy

Notification Law Pits Safety vs. Privacy
Posted by FoM on January 28, 2000 at 21:55:17 PT
By Sherry Karasik 
Source: APBNews
Emmet Dennis, acting vice president for student affairs at Rutgers University, takes a wait-and-see stance for now.  Even as a new weapon is being deployed in the battle to control alcohol and drug abuse on college campuses, a debate has been renewed over a student's right to privacy and the administration's role as parental substitute. 
At issue is a federal law passed last year allowing administrators to disclose a student's academic or probationary record to parents without a student's consent. Supporters say it offers colleges a chance to respond to early warning signs that a student may be at risk. "If you can bring parents into the problem at an earlier stage, the aim is to prevent severe and adverse consequences," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, which is based in Washington. Detractors, however, argue that new law fails to treat students as adults and may create an atmosphere of distrust between students and the school. "Parents don't have the right to know. The age of majority is 18. Under this bill, a college student doesn't have the same rights as an 18-year-old until age 21," said Jeff Shapiro, student government president at University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), where a student referendum on parental notification was voted down 6,000 to 1,200. "The administrator's job is to educate, not regulate, students," Congress Weighs In: Congress changed the confidentiality laws last year for the express purpose of reducing the incidence of drug and alcohol abuse on college campuses. Virginia Sen. John Warner spearheaded the drive to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) after five alcohol-related deaths at colleges and universities in Virginia the previous year. Arguing for his proposed amendment, Warner asked his senate colleagues, "Why should [college and university administrators] not have the benefit of parental help in tragic situations where there has been a clear violation of law as it relates to drugs and alcohol?" He prevailed, and FERPA was flipped on its head. Schools that in the past would notify parents of their child's illegal behavior only after tragic consequences now are grappling with having to inform parents when their child has violated campus codes on drugs or alcohol. While the bill might narrow the gap between parents and universities, others fear it could alienate students from their schools. No Changes in N.J., California: "Before this amendment, students went to colleges as adults, and they were self-responsible," said Dean Emmet Dennis of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. So far it's business as usual at Rutgers University, Dennis said. An underage drinker, or a 21-year-old caught drinking with younger students, is required to see a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. "If a student breaks the law, he or she must go through the [University's] judicial process, where their case will be brought before a court and the student can defend [himself]. Disciplinary action, including suspension, for drug or alcohol-related offenses, may result. If a student is found dealing drugs, expulsion may be recommended," Dennis said. California's Constitution supersedes the federal legislation, said Steve Rosen, attorney for the University of California. "State statutes prohibit the release of information without consent of the student, except under limited circumstances when a student's health is at risk or ... a student is harming others. The notification bill will not actually change anything for the university," he said. Part 2Crackdown on Drinking in Delaware: Some administrators are embracing parental notification, however. Two years ago, the University of Delaware began a proactive crackdown on binge drinking by taking advantage of a FERPA loophole that allowed universities to share academic and probationary records with the parents of students who are financially dependent on them. Students did not protest the new school policy, according to Tim Brooks, dean of students. Already, some 3,000 parents have been contacted. "We don't tell parents what the violation is or the sanctions [imposed], but we ask them to contact the student ... so the student is held accountable to [his] parents first." Sanctions are imposed after a student violates campus rules three times. A freshman is suspended from campus housing for a year; upperclassmen are suspended from class for a year. In the 1997-1998 academic year, there were 58 residence suspensions and 40 school suspensions. The following year, after the new policy was in place, resident suspensions dropped to 40, and school suspensions fell to 23. And a student survey found that over the past two years, binge drinking fell from 66 percent to 58 percent of the student body of 21,000. 'Massive Self-Deception' But the crux of the issue remains how parents react to being informed of a child's substance abuse. "Parents may engage in massive self-deception, especially when it comes to substance abuse," Steinbach said. "Will parents work with the institution, or will the institution be able to enforce parental sanctions? It's too early to tell if the amendment is working," he said. "I don't think this amendment is an answer," said Lisa Laitman, director of the drug- and alcohol-counseling program at Rutgers. "We don't notify parents unless a student is a danger to [himself] or others." Increasing Campus Tension? While she believes that notifying parents of illegal drinking or drug use might help some students, Laitman is "afraid that this amendment -- that is being voted against in other schools -- may create more tension between students and those trying to help them. We know the only way to change this behavior is to engage students in a conversation where they can begin to question their own behavior." "It's a complex problem; not one thing is going to make a major difference," she said. Her major concern: What will -- or can -- a parent do when notified? "Some parents may do nothing. Others may pull their child out of school, or threaten to no longer pay tuition. This isn't teaching children accountability, or helping them become adults," Laitman said. NEW YORK ( Sherry Karasik is an correspondent in New Jersey.Published: January 28, 2000 ęCopyright 2000 APB Online, IncRelated Articles:Students Accept Search Rule - 12/05/99 May Get Word If College Students Err - 10/11/99
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