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Your Guide to FERPA

Question | Privacy
What is FERPA?
FERPA1

FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. It was created to protect the privacy of students’ personally identifiable information—information like a student number, class schedule, GPA, or social security number that could be a harmful invasion of privacy if shared without the student’s consent. FERPA serves two purposes: (1) to grant your parents (and you alone, if you’re 18 or older) access to information in your education record, and (2) to protect that information from being given away to other parties without your approval.

On request, the school has to give parents and eligible students a chance to 

  • Look over the education record to check for errors or inaccuracies 
  • To schedule a hearing to challenge the record, and 
  • Insert into the record a written explanation about what happened 

 A school may not charge fees for letting you review the record, but can charge fees to make any copies of it. 

What is an education record? 

A lot of schools will use FERPA to deny requests for information, but it’s important to keep in mind that FERPA only applies to information that comes from a student’s education record. This ‘record’ can be anything from a report card to a snapchat of a fight at school. The important thing is that to be part of the education record, the record has to (1) directly relate to a student, and (2) be maintained by the school. 

To directly relate to a student, the student has to be the focus of the record, not just in the background. For example, say the school has a picture of students playing in a basketball game. The photo doesn’t directly relate to anyone sitting on the benches in the background, but would directly relate to the two players who are the focus of the picture. 


basketball

Provided via Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0, Chip Griffin.


Of course, just because a picture is directly related to a student doesn’t mean that it’s automatically part of a student’s education record. The second requirement is that the record has to be systematically and centrally maintained by the school. Suspension reports, disciplinary actions, GPAs, class schedules, and even psychological evaluations are all centrally maintained by schools. So, the basketball photo could be part of a student record if the school used it as evidence to suspend the player for in-game cheating.

FERPA expressly does not apply to: 

Directory Information: Directory information is basic information about a student that is considered safe to share to third parties without invading privacy. This includes things like a student’s name, address, phone number, email address, student ID picture, enrollment status, place and date of birth, and even weight and height of students who are on athletic teams. FERPA only covers directory information if there is a risk that by disclosing it, someone in the public could use that information to identify that student with reasonable certainty 

 General Information: FERPA only applies to information in a student’s education record. So, if the information comes from any source other than the record, FERPA does not apply. This means that any information gained from personal knowledge, observation, or even interviewing other students is not protected under FERPA. For example, if a school administrator reads student John Doe’s disciplinary report and tells a student journalist that John was suspended for smoking weed, that would violate FERPA. But, if John tells the student journalist during an interview that he was suspended for smoking weed that would not violate FERPA. The student reporter got the information from John directly, not the school record. In other words, FERPA DOES NOT APPLY TO INFORMATION YOU GET FROM STUDENT INTERVIEWS.

Some other records where FERPA would NOT apply include: 

  • Quiz papers and assignments that are graded in-class by other students 
  • E-mails about students stored on individual teachers’ hard drives 
  • Blog posts 
  • Records kept by student organizations 
  • Police and campus security reports 
  • Student parking tickets 
  • Photos and videos taken on school property (unless a copy becomes part of the student’s file, like if it is used as evidence in a suspension) 

Redacted Information

redacted

If the record has information about more than one student in it, the school has to try to cut out the information about the other student (called “redacting”) before letting you look at the file. For example, if the record is a picture of two students fighting, the school should blur out the faces of other students and black out their names in the report. 

If all of the identifying info about any student has been redacted from the file, it no longer counts as an “education record,” and isn’t protected under FERPA. Of course, a redacted file can be hard to read because much of the information could be blurred or blacked out.

Who Has to Follow FERPA Rules

FERPA only applies to acting agents of a school. These can be teachers, administrators, coaches, and other school employees. FERPA does NOT apply to student journalists or broadcasters who want to use student information or even images of a student in their high school newspapers and broadcasts. This is because student journalists are neither employees nor agents of the schools they attend. 

Also, FERPA only applies to schools that receive government funds, which includes all public schools and many private schools. If you attend a fully private school (that doesn’t get any government funding), the rules of FERPA don’t apply. However, many private schools choose to follow the same rules that public schools are legally required to follow. If you attend a private school, check out your school’s privacy policy or student handbook. 

What Happens When a School Violates FERPA Rules?

If a school shares a student’s personally identifying information with someone else without permission, the school could lose all of its federal funding. This is a really big deal, so school employees and administrators are very careful about playing by the rules of FERPA. Sometimes, schools get so concerned with following FERPA that they may even try to push FERPA rules on their own students to prevent them from publishing non-directory information. But remember, FERPA only applies to education records held by the school, not interviews with students.

How to Respond to a FERPA Denial

If you think your school is using FERPA rules as a reason to censor your publication, approach the situation with some common-sense reporting techniques:

  1. Know which types of records are exempt from FERPA 
  2. Ask the school for a specific legal reason for withholding the records (not just ‘confidentiality’) 
  3. Ask for redacted files or anonymous statistics 
  4. Ask for a waiver (yes, FERPA is waivable if you get permission from the parent or eligible student) 
  5. Interview students (remember, FERPA doesn’t apply to information you gather independently) 
  6. File a complaint (if you are denied access to your own records, you can file a FERPA complaint online or by calling (202) 260-3777) 
  7. Talk to your administrator (show them this Q&A) 
  8. Contact us! 

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