Webb says bill aims to lessen fears in releasing student data

Associated Press Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Sen. Jim Webb said Monday he would introduce legislation aimed at easing school officials’ concerns over when it is appropriate to disclose student records.

Webb’s announcement comes almost a year after a disturbed gunman killed 32 students and himself at Virginia Tech. It addresses one of the key issues raised by a panel formed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to investigate the April 16, 2007, shootings.

The legislation, which Webb said he will file Tuesday, proposes amending the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by adding a “safe harbor” provision that would allow school officials to release information if it’s deemed necessary to protect the student or general public.

It further clarifies that the 1974 privacy law doesn’t prohibit sharing records with off-campus medical providers who also are providing treatment to a student. The bill says only “a good faith belief” is required to disclose records if it will protect the student or others.

“Too many college administrators are unsure how to balance the right to privacy against public safety, and federal law and regulations are unclear,” Webb said Monday on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “It is important for school officials to use their best professional judgment in deciding when to disclose or not disclose information _ without fear of violating federal educational privacy laws.”

School administrators have said that fear of violating federal privacy laws like FERPA have made it difficult to respond effectively to troubled students.

The gunman at Virginia Tech, senior Seung-Hui Cho, was known to a group of Virginia Tech administrators that deals with student problems and to officials at Westfield High School in Chantilly. The two groups never exchanged information.

Virginia Tech faculty and students found Cho’s creative writings disturbing, and two women complained to campus police about his annoying behavior. Cho was committed to a mental health center overnight in December 2005 after a report that he was suicidal.

FERPA and other privacy laws also hampered the state panel’s investigation until Cho’s family gave Virginia Tech permission to turn over his school records. Kaine signed an executive order clearing the way for the panel to receive other protected records.

“If you want to look at one single item or contribution to the tragedy at Virginia Tech, it was probably our privacy laws,” said W. Gerald Massengil, a former Virginia State Police superintendent who headed the review panel. “No one person or no one entity had all the information to connect all of the dots.”

The panel said in its August report that federal privacy laws were poorly understood and recommended that Congress create an exception in FERPA for on-campus counseling clinics to share information in the case of potentially dangerous patients such as Cho.

Read the full story in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star