Students’ privacy in jeopardy

The privacy of students who visit the USF Counseling Center may be at stake if proposed federal amendments to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) are approved.

The Virginia Tech massacre prompted federal lawmakers to clarify laws concerning the sharing of student mental health records, after it became clear that perpetrator Seung-Hui Cho visibly suffered from mental health problems. Administrators didn’t take action or notify his parents, however, for fear of violating privacy laws.

Although FERPA was introduced more than 30 years ago with the intent of protecting the privacy of students’ records, the emergence of counseling centers at colleges and universities and the increase in campus violence reflects the need to update the law, legislators said.

Discussion of reforms to FERPA began in April 2007, when Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.) announced he would introduce a bill that would request the clarification of the 1974 act, creating a “safety harbor” for campus administrators who disclose information to people who can respond, according to the Associated Press.

And on March 25, the New York Times reported that such clarifications would allow administrators to release mental health information to parents more easily. Under the new law, universities will be able to give parents records of students claimed as dependants on their tax returns, as well as students younger than 21 who violate campus drug or alcohol policies.

A subsequent federal report concluded that there is confusion on the part of university administrators and faculty nationwide as to when suspicious behavior should be reported without violating federal privacy law. As it now stands, faculty members may disclose confidential information only if they feel the student is in imminent danger of causing harm to self or to others, according to FERPA.

One of the most recent updates took place in Virginia, when Gov. Tim Kaine signed a bill that changes the standard of involuntary commitment from “imminent danger” to “substantial likelihood.” In other words, a person may be committed if there’s a possibility that he or she may harm him- or herself, whereas in the past, a person could only be committed if danger was virtually guaranteed, according to the Associated Press.

The law – which will go into effect in June – also requires state universities to establish comprehensive emergency notification systems by Jan. 1, 2009.

Some campus mental health professionals have said they prefer present standards.

“There’s really no advantage to lessening the imminent danger statute,” Director of the USF Counseling Center William Anton said. “I think most mental health professionals will stick with the imminent danger statute.”

Additional amendments to federal law include extending FERPA coverage to students taking classes online, whereas the handling of students who exhibit questionable behavior in online classes is currently vague, according to the Times.

The amendments would also allow universities to release mental health information to contractors and consultants to whom they outsource patients, the Times reported.

Anton was critical of proposed changes to the policy, however, as he feared it could discourage people from seeking help.

“If the information people release in therapy isn’t confidential, many people that are violent would be reluctant to say anything,” Anton said. “I think it’s a tremendously unsophisticated point of view.”

When a student visits the USF Counseling Center, information is kept confidential unless the student is in imminent danger to others or self. A court may also subpoena documents, but only after a review of the Counseling Center may the documents be released. The student must also be notified in advance about the subpoena.

One of the advantages of the counseling center is that, because they don’t take insurance, there is no paper trail to tie back the student to any visits, Anton said.

“The only way someone would know is if the student said anything,” he said.

So far, Florida is not taking any steps to amend privacy laws.

In February, the State University System (SUS) and the Board of Governors (BOG) reported an increase in the number of students with “severe psychological problems” in all SUS institutions. Early intervention – rather than making it easier to commit a person presumed to be mentally ill – was presented as the solution.

“You want that to be an early intervention,” said Olga Skalkos, assistant director of the Counseling Center.

The report stated that the Gubernatorial Task Force recommended the SUS determine ways to increase funding dedicated to campus mental health and wellness needs, including community education.

The recommended ratio of students per counselors is 1:1,500. As of September 2007, USF needed 22 more counselors. The national average student-to-staff ration was 1:2,644. University of Florida and New College of Florida fell below the national average with a ratio of 1:1,698 and 1:784, respectively.

The report also recommends each individual state college and university include mental health courses in their undergraduate curriculum as a workshop for students. In addition, it suggests the development of a multimedia awareness training program about mental illness for faculty, students and parents.

The vagueness of the laws has led to confusion among staff as to when to release information and tell officials when a student needs help. The report found, however, that when a student presented imminent threat to self or others, most representatives notified University Police.

“It would be nice if all administration knew they can just call someone,” Skalkos said.