Student privacy under scrutiny

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Student privacy under scrutiny

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<b>Shooting sparks national debate</b>

By: Eric Johnson, Senior Writer
Posted: 5/24/07

Congress is wading into the turbulent debate about campus safety in the aftermath of last month&#39;s shootings at Virginia Tech and is considering possible changes to federal laws governing student privacy.

A bill to loosen disclosure restrictions for campuses dealing with at-risk students is already attracting attention in the House, and similar measures are being drafted in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the UNC-system will consider during the next few months whether to back any move to alter long-standing federal policy about the disclosure of student health records.

"In Washington, there&#39;s a lot of attention on this issue," said Kimrey Rhinehardt, UNC-system vice president for federal relations. "I think that certainly now, more than ever, the university is going to be a part of that discussion."

The April 16 shooting of 32 students at Virginia Tech by a classmate with a documented history of mental instability has prompted colleges across the country to reevaluate their security procedures.

It has also drawn national attention to the vague guidelines that govern when and how campuses can respond to threatening or self-destructive behavior by a student.

Federal law prohibits universities from contacting a student&#39;s parents unless the student presents an imminent danger to himself or others, a standard that is open to wide interpretation. In recent years, campuses have been sued for taking preemptive measures against troubled students in some instances and for failing to take preemptive action in others.

As a result, most campus administrators have welcomed the opportunity to review the existing statutes.

"I think there&#39;s enough confusion now that most institutions would tell you that it could hardly get any worse," said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education.

"Institutions may assume that scrutinizing this legislation would lend some greater clarity to the issue," she said. "There are some very legitimate reasons for the laws we have the on books, but they do create grey areas for campuses."

The UNC-system has created a task force that will explore those grey areas, along with a whole host of other safety issues. The group will represent a variety of constituencies, from chancellors and legal counsel to students and staff members.

Only after the task force has weighed in with recommendations - scheduled for sometime in September - will the system consider lobbying for any changes to federal law.

"Because the issues of privacy and disclosure are so delicate, it&#39;s going to take a lot of people thinking about this to come with the right balance," Rhinehardt said.

In announcing the safety task force earlier this month, university officials stressed the need to avoid any hasty reactions.

Noting that UNC campuses are statistically far safer than North Carolina as a whole, System President Erskine Bowles said the task force would proceed cautiously with any recommendations.

"We have to really make sure we think through these issues and don&#39;t just react," Bowles said. "We have to do things that make good common sense."

It is unclear whether the task force will finish its work in time for UNC to weigh in effectively at the federal level. It will depend on how quickly Congress moves to revisit the privacy and disclosure issues.

The state of Virginia has formed its own high-profile commission to study the shooting at Virginia Tech, and Timmons said that might prompt federal lawmakers to take a more deliberative approach.

"I think there is a little bit of a sense of proceeding slowly out of a sense of respect for the Virginia Tech situation," she said.

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Original Source: <a href=http://media.www.dailytarheel.com/media/storage/paper885/news/2007/05/24/StateNational/Student.Privacy.Under.Scrutiny-2907006.shtml>The Daily Tar Heel - May 24, 2007</a>

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Sara Hood

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2007-07-16

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Sara Hood

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Kevin Schwartz <kschwartz@unc.edu>

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eng

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Sara Hood, "Student privacy under scrutiny," in The April 16 Archive, Item #740, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/740 (accessed July 24, 2014).