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Navigating Student Privacy Within FERPADavid Tuttle
When one of my four kids was in college, they were taken by their friends to the emergency room because of excessive alcohol consumption.
I didn’t like that my kiddo drank too much. I didn’t like the hospital bill. And I didn’t send my kid to college to be just like I was as a student. (In my defense, my tuition was much cheaper). But as we parents must often do, I bit my tongue. That’s my version, anyway.
What I DID communicate and reinforce was that the friends did the right thing — that safety is more important than possibly getting in trouble or having a bill to pay off (ultimately by me), or being embarrassed about an ER trip.
So much went right in this situation. Friends made an assertive and decisive judgment call. They had my number, so they reached out to me to loop me in early. And it all led to a discussion about responsibility, safety, and expectations.
In my experience as a Dean of Students overseeing conduct for over 20 years, I learned many things. First, students really worry about their parents finding out they're in trouble. And second, parents almost always step up — responding fairly, compassionately, and in appropriately measured ways. But yeah, they're often ticked off, just like I was.
Most campuses will not contact parents about conduct violations by their students, unless the violation is leading to suspension from school or is an alcohol and drug violation. (Privacy laws under FERPA allow – but don’t require – schools an exception to disclose alcohol and drug findings to parents.) When students have multiple alcohol violations and any drug violations they may be on probation, so that is when schools may ask students to have parents contact them.
Another one of my kids, while in college, told us about a romantic liaison he had with another student. That child, told us, proudly, that they didn’t keep secrets from us. Our response? Please do.
In the conduct realm, knowing enough, but not too much, may be a reasonable place to reside for parents. So how can you do that? Here's a six-step plan.
We rarely think about this, but discussing our expectations with our students in advance can make a huge difference. With my kids, I always talked about their education as an opportunity that was also a privilege. We discussed that their health and safety came first, their education second, and their right to have fun was third. They were there to learn, in and outside the classroom.
Students also need to know it's okay to make mistakes. Parents may want excellence, but we should be clear we don’t expect perfection.
Try to avoid outlining consequences that will box you, and your student, into a corner. Students have reported to me that if their parents found out they drank, smoked marijuana, or even had poor grades, that they would pull them from school. This will create silence and secrecy and when the student is forced to come clean, parents can almost do nothing to support them. By leaving things more general, you will have flexibility.
Telling your student that they can tell you anything, that you want to know, and that you will be there for support, can be really helpful to them. Letting them know that there will be consequences is fine. But keep in mind that every case has nuances, there may be mitigating circumstances, and students make dumb mistakes.
I often had to remind students that no one knows or cares about them more than the people who raised them. What's more, parents would rather be there to support them, no matter what, in their time of heavy stress, than to know their child was bearing this anxiety without them.
After a Title IX case I ran, a student had to finally come clean to let his parents know he was suspended for a semester. I had urged him multiple times to reach out to his folks. Finally, when all was said and done, he admitted to me that yeah, he should have followed my advice. His folks were terrific and they supported him with legal counsel for his appeal. More importantly, they let him know that he was okay, and this situation would be okay in time.
This shouldn’t be homework for you, but you might want to review the campus mission and values as well as specific policies. These can really be informative. Institutions want to produce good citizens that they can be proud of as (generous) alumni. Policies related to alcohol and drugs, especially on campus, are worth reviewing and discussing with your student.
You know your child best. Do they like to drink? Have they smoked pot? Are they followers? Perhaps they are mischievous but not reckless. Maybe they take unnecessary risks.
These young people may especially need to have expectations and assurances as noted above. You aren’t off the hook if your child has always been an angel either. Sometimes finally having freedom leads to experimentation and risk-taking. Remind these kids that, while mistakes are okay, making safe decisions and following their moral compasses is important.
We get so involved when our students first go to college. After a successful first semester, it's nice to relax. And you should! But also remain vigilant. They're still learning and growing. Membership in any groups may involve hazing. Spring break and 21st birthdays can present binge drinking and related issues. And sometimes, students just get a false sense of security as they become comfortable in their environments.
This isn’t intended to reactivate your stress. But continue to check in with them, get a sense for how they spend their time, remind them of expectations, express pride that they have navigated college so well up to that point.
Finally, remember this. College is about learning. That's why you are sending your child to school. But for traditional-age students, they are also learning how to navigate independence and life. They are developing. What a joy to watch adolescents grow into adults! You can help them get through this transition by communicating a lot, and clearly, and expressing your openness and support for them — no matter what.