Get stories and expert advice on all things related to college and parenting.
Navigating Student Privacy Within FERPADavid Tuttle
A fresh start is so inspirational! It makes a person feel like there’s nothing they cannot do.
Starting college brings this feeling, and it’s great, but it’s not all that’s needed to ensure success during this new chapter of life.
Many incoming first-year students have special needs (mental health, learning challenges, addiction support among others) for which they’ve received support in the past. Sometimes these students and their families use college as a fresh start and attempt to move forward without support for those needs.
This can be a risky choice because college is often the first time a student will be on their own and they may not have developed the skills needed to handle their challenges in a larger environment.
At the college level, it is the student’s responsibility to share information regarding their needs. Providing full disclosure does not place a target on a student. On the contrary! Colleges and universities can only work with students based on the information provided.
And there's a small window of opportunity early in the year for staff and faculty to develop a relationship with a student and connect them with resources based on their understanding of the student’s needs. This is why it’s essential that any information related to a student’s needs be communicated prior to the semester start.
As a campus housing professional, I have had many experiences with “clean slate” thinking from students and their families. I understand where this is coming from but must emphasize that it's potentially unhealthy and even dangerous to place a student in a new environment without informing the school of the student’s needs.
For example, new experiences can bring stress which might trigger anxiety. If residential life staff know that a student in their care has anxiety, they can check on them periodically to make sure they’re utilizing resources to help them maintain healthy habits and be successful on campus.
Another example is the challenge of living in a communal environment. Dorm life is an adjustment for all students, but students dealing with certain issues can have a tendency to messy living spaces. What may have worked at home doesn’t necessarily work in the dorm. If old food is left out, trash not removed, dirty laundry piles up on the floor, this is not only a problem for the roommate but it can constitute a health hazard. Residence halls are required to maintain health and safety standards which means students are held accountable for how they live and how it affects the community.
As part of my orientation for student housing, I have a section specifically on “Full Disclosure” because I have dealt with some heart-breaking “clean slate” situations. It is distressing for everyone involved. The student is dealing with their diagnosis (whatever it may be) with no support or ability to navigate the new environment, the parent is upset that their student is not doing well, and faculty and staff are frustrated because they don’t want to see any student failing or struggling.
Often the disclosure of a mental health or learning diagnosis comes when there is a problem in a class or the residence hall. Unfortunately, by that time it is almost always too late. Many obstacles can be avoided by completing the paperwork fully and providing the necessary documentation to the required officers.
There are forms for housing asking for disclosure of any medical conditions or mental health diagnosis. One of the forms in my office specifically asks if a student would like to be connected to our Student Success Department. If they answer “Yes,” I email the student with information about this resource and connect them directly to the director of the department. Though this information is provided during student orientation and available on the college’s website and online student portal, the goal is to make sure a student knows the resource is there for their personal and academic success.
Remember, everyone needs help from time to time. It doesn’t make the person incapable or a failure. It's hard but necessary to be open and up front about personal challenges. Students entering a new chapter need all the resources available to ensure stability and success.
The moment the negative thoughts attached to full disclosure fall away is the moment a new college student's course of success is set!