After Virginia Tech, Fordham Clarifies Privacy Policies


Published: September 27, 2007

FCLC—Since the massacre at Virginia State Polytechnic University (Virginia Tech), many schools across the nation have reevaluated their interpretations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), which outlines the privacy rights of college students across the nation.

Virginia Tech administrators were criticized for not monitoring the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, and sharing information about his metal health and school progress with his parents.

The Observer spoke with Keith Eldredge, dean of students at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, about the privacy policy at Fordham.

The Observer: Under FERPA, schools are allowed to disclose any information from a student’s records “in cases of health and safety emergencies.” At Fordham, what would constitute as such an emergency?

Keith Eldredge: It’s hard to pinpoint a lot of specific situations, but I guess the general answer is certainly anything where we think a student is at risk of harming himself or herself or another student. That’s the clear threshold. I think kind of a notch below that, are situations in which we are concerned about a student’s ability to succeed at Fordham or to be safe. [Those] would be situations in which we would share information within the university, among professional colleagues. However, official records in the Health Center  are confidential, except for that top threshold.

O: Is any information from Counseling Center records disclosed to either parents or faculty in “emergency situations”?

Ke: I think with parents a part of the law that is misinterpreted, I feel, by a lot of other institutions is that with students who are dependent on their parents, the university [should be] allowed to share all the student’s academic records with the parents. That’s where some of Fordham’s policies about reaching out to parents are a little bit different than some other institutions. We will reach out to parents and share with them some of that information, even if it’s not at that life-threatening situation, whereas other schools will wait until that point. Our philosophy is that we want to partner with parents because students are young adults, but there’s still some development that’s occurring. So we’re not going to pick up the phone in every situation.

O: In such an emergency, how much of that information is disclosed to parents?

Ke: It really depends on the situation, but the focus is on maintaining privacy, [while] giving parents enough information so that they understand the urgency of the situation.

O: Is any of that information disclosed to faculty members? How much and in what situations?

Ke:  Almost all of my communication is with the academic deans. My sense is that they may then say to faculty members, “I’ve gotten some information that X might be struggling, can you let us know if you see anything.” [However], if we are in a position of wanting to create a support network for the student then we’re not going to go into great detail with a faculty member.

O: Are students ever consulted before the disclosure of information?

Ke: Usually. The exception would be in a life-threatening situation. We could extend that slightly. If the concern is that the student is not in a position to be able to make competent decisions, [we may not consult the student] before disclosing information.

O: Can you explain the procedure faculty members have been instructed to follow regarding students with mental health issues?

Ke: Within the Faculty Senate, the Student Life Committee brought up an issue where faculty members don’t always have the information to plan a course of action.  They worked most heavily with Chris Rodgers, Dean of Students at Rose Hill and the Counseling Center to develop a brochure [that] outlines the procedure for faculty to follow if they are concerned about an imminent threat. The basic plan is really to contact the Dean of Students Office or the Counseling Center, to share the information he or she is concerned about, and then take the appropriate action on a case-by-case basis.

O: Has Fordham reevaluated any of the policies in the wake of the Virginia Tech report? Does the school plan to?

Ke: [The University has not changed any policies], but the security department tries to run a “tabletop exercise” at least once a year. They [included all departments] that would be impacted by an emergency situation and we did a mock scenario. John Carroll [director of Security Services] actually ran it through a PowerPoint presentation and we discussed reactions to specific situations. These situations seem to raise more questions than they answer. Then we can step back and say, “how can we improve here, here’s where we found some weaknesses or vulnerabilities.” We try to do that at least once a year.