Privacy gone mad (again)

In a book review in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal — of The Five-Year Party, by Craig Brandon — there was a passage about yet another weird path down which our national obsession with, and perversion of, the notion of “privacy” has led us:

Mr. Brandon is especially bothered by colleges’ obsession with secrecy and by what he sees as their misuse of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which Congress passed in 1974. Ferpa made student grade reports off-limits to parents. But many colleges have adopted an expansive view of Ferpa, claiming that the law applies to all student records. Schools are reluctant to give parents any information about their children, even when it concerns academic, disciplinary and health matters that might help mom and dad nip a problem in the bud.

Such policies can have tragic consequences, as was the case with a University of Kansas student who died of alcohol poisoning in 2009 and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who committed suicide in 2000. In both instances there were warning signs, but the parents were not notified. Ferpa’s most notorious failure was Seung-Hui Cho, the mentally ill Virginia Tech student who murdered 32 people and wounded 25 others during a daylong rampage in 2007. Cho’s high school did not alert Virginia Tech to Cho’s violent behavior, professors were barred from conferring with one another about Cho, and the university did not inform Cho’s parents about their son’s troubles—all on the basis of an excessively expansive interpretation of Ferpa, Mr. Brandon says. He recommends that parents have their child sign a Ferpa release form before heading off to college.

Good advice. Those of you who argue with me about curfews and bar closings and the like may side with those who gave us this situation. But I have a parent’s perspective. I want to know what’s going on with my kids. And moreover, I have a right to know — one that in a rational world would easily supersede any imagined “rights” granted by FERPA.

29 thoughts on “Privacy gone mad (again)

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    Well, in the mental health cases, you also have HIPAA to contend with.
    I’m of two minds. I believe in privacy rights, but in the case of college age people, whose brains scientists tell us are not fully formed until they are 25–especially the part that appreciates consequences–and as one who has suffered the annoyance of dealing with the new crop of invincibles each year, I see your point.

    I say we take away the vote, stop allowing anyone under 21 to serve in the military, either–takes away the whole “if you’re old enough to die for your country” crap…

  2. Brad

    No question that the age of majority should be at LEAST 21, and probably older.

    But while it may be convenient, even easy, to equate that to military service, it’s not logical to compare them. Being a recruit in the military is particularly well suited to an 18-year-old male. Under the conditions of strict, ironclad discipline that the military imposes, someone that age — even without his higher faculties fully developed — can perform superbly. At that level, military service — particularly in the combat infantry — is about physical fitness and the ability to take orders (when conditioned to do so). 18-21-year-old males are very well suited to that, if you’re selective about whom you let in.

    They are not as well suited to being generals or admirals, or to making fully mature choices about electing the civilian leaders who will have authority over the generals and admirals.

    That whole military service/right to vote argument is a highly emotional one originally based in a condition in which military service was compulsory. It was always ill-advised.

  3. Brad

    Of course, it occurs to me that with the military increasingly professional and high-tech, it’s less about toting a rifle and marching and more about having higher-order skills. So on that basis an argument could be mounted for raising the age. But it should NOT be based in voting rights or other considerations.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    Should we allow someone to make a commitment that may well leave him or her dead, crippled for life physically or emotionally at the tender age of 18, just because it suits us? Either institute a draft/national service requirement, so everybody does his or her bit, or raise the minimum age for enlisting.

  5. Mark Stewart

    I do not agree with your position on the bar closing issue but absolutely agree that parents ought to know what their kids are doing at college. Kids need space to make mistakes; but they also need a support network – whether they feel that’s what they are getting or not. However, they should mostly be treated as adults.

  6. Doug Ross

    Simple Libertarian solutions:

    1) If the parents pay any part of the tuition, they can have access to any information about the kid’s grades.

    2) For all other information, if the student is over 18 then all it takes is a checkbox on the student’s information form:

    “I give the school permission to provide any information about my grades, healthcare, activities, etc. to my parents/guardian”

    If the kid doesn’t check the box, then it’s up to his parents to have a conversation as to why that would be a problem. Imagine – dealing with an issue without a government funded intermediary!

    The fact that FERPA exists is the same reason blue laws and bar curfews exist: Some bureaucrat thinks he knows what is best for everybody else. This is exactly the type of crap the government has no business being involved with.

  7. Steve Gordy

    If I remember correctly, the draft age was 21 in World War I and at the beginning of World War II; it wasn’t lowered to 18 until 1943. This indicates, pace Brad, that 18-year-olds weren’t always considered prime picks for military service. The comment about physical fitness is a good point.

  8. bud

    Most college kids are adults. We need to let them go at some point. Still, some of the restrictions do seem a bit obsessive.

  9. bud

    Can’t have it both ways. To suggest the posibility of returning to a voting age of 21 while allowing for the possibility of drafting 18 year olds is absolutely insane. It’s utterly ridiculous to suggest someone who can potentially be drafted into service can’t vote for people who will make that decision. This is a 100% no-brainer. Brad your arguments on this are absurd.

  10. Doug Ross

    As for the age debate, it’s just a number. There are plenty of people over the age of 21 who shouldn’t be let near a voting booth, a car, or a gun.

    What’s next? Forbidding marriage and childbirth prior to age 21?

  11. Brad

    I like the IDEA of a draft, but I’m cognizant of the reluctance of the brass to institute one. They don’t want a mass of reluctant soldiers like the one they had to deal with in Vietnam. Also, the need today is NOT for a million-man army to engage in gigantic conventional battles across Europe. War is more specialized, more technology driven. The one advantage I see to a draft is that it would give the military an unlimited pool from which to pick the very best, most well-suited personnel to meet our needs going forward. But most of those caught up in a draft would not be needed.

    The advantage of a draft to SOCIETY is that it would discipline young males (I see absolutely zero logic in drafting girls; the military needs females now because without a draft, it can’t fill the billets otherwise — a draft would eliminate that need) as part of something larger than themselves. (My pet theory about political fragmentation and polarization in this country is that previous generations of politicians learned early that they were Americans before they were Democrats or Republicans; doing away with the shared experience of the draft drove them into their little self-obsessed cliques.) Rather than sending them to college, with NO notion of what they want to do with their lives, to drink beer and chase tail full-time, channel their energies and train them to a purpose that serves the tribe (and limit their beer-drinking and tail-chasing to when they get a liberty).

    As for your concerns about 18-year-olds dying in war — first, I say that anyone dying in a war, or a traffic accident, is a tragedy. Then I would assert that an 18-year-old is better suited to surviving battle than a 40-year-old. Which goes back to my original point: Boys in their late teens are better suited, physically, to being infantry privates than older men are.

    Also, we could debate all day whether it’s more of a tragedy for a young man to die before he’s fully lived, or for an older man who’s more likely to have people depending on him to die in his place. I can see merits on either side of that one.

  12. David

    I’m confused. We no longer need the million-man armies because war is now technology driven. And there is zero logic in drafting women.

    So women aren’t good with technology like men?

  13. bud

    How about instead of talking about war and worshipping the warriors who wage the wars why don’t we instead try to eliminate war? That’s not going to happen but here in the U.S. we can do our part by resolving to bring our military committments to an end. Once that is done we can focus on ridding ourselves and the world of nuclear weapons. Then we can cut our standing army in half, our navy by 3/4 and eliminate our airforce except for the planes needed to defend our borders. We could easily save upwards of 500 billion/year while at the same time many thousands of lives would be saved.

    It should be crystal clear by now that all this constant talk about the military only ensures that we will wage war somewhere against someone. Never mind whether that war is against a real threat. It only has to look like a threat. What this is is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe really hard enough that a band of dirty, bearded blowhards 6000 miles away are a threat then by golly they become a threat.

    The Europeans and Japanese figured this out years ago and look how peacefully they live. The Russians may be getting the message. The Chinese still have a ways to go. Why can’t we be a leader in seeking peaceful solutions to the world’s problems? That really isn’t in the cards as long as we harp on war and spend $700 billion/year on military crap. $200 billion/year and we’d still lead the world. Sounds about right to me.

  14. bud

    Doug, I can readily see reasons where an 18 year old has legitimate reasons for not allowing his parents access to health issues and perhaps even grades. If a young adult wants to end his or her relationship with authoritarian parents who don’t maintain the same religious belief then he should not be forced to.

    But you do have a point about paying for tuition. Seems like it’s pretty reasonable to allow grade access to those who pay. The FERPA rules could be a bit more clear on this but I do believe it serves an important purpose in setting up some basic rules to follow.

  15. David

    I’m guessing that everyone who disagreed with you on bar closings — perhaps everyone not named Doug (no offense, Doug) — would agree that parents should have access to their children’s student records. Or at least where the parent is involved, especially financially involved, in the student’s schooling.

    Kind of like how no one who disagreed with you on bar closings believed people should be allowed to run traffic lights as you suggested they might.

  16. Kathryn Fenner

    Something creeps me out about the “who pays gets to see” concept. Do you want your employer, in a self-funded plan, to see your medical records?

    bud makes a good point, except that the FAFSA (mandatory) student aid form makes it very difficult for students with abusive or merely overbearing parents to break free as well. A parent who simply refuses to fill in the form, as well as one who simply refuses to pony up what the aid people think he or she should, can effectively derail a kid’s education in these high-priced days. Tuition is so high, it’s well-nigh impossible to work your way through school on the kinds of jobs that would also allow you to go to school.

  17. Libb

    Brad, given your worshipful take on all things military, why didn’t you serve? Not looking to pick a fight, just curious…

  18. Jack

    I don’t think local universities have an interpretation of FERPA is ‘excessively expansive,” and I don’t think most schools are even privacy advocates. Rather, I think information is not shared because FERPA seems to invite students whose data has been shared to sue the university into a hole in the ground. If Cho felt he had been baselessly hounded because some faculty member turned him in, could he have pursued that faculty for slander, libel etc? Could he have asked for tenure to be revoked and the faculty fired for FERPA violations?

    In my opinion, as a teacher coming from a family of teachers, FERPA is a binding directive to pull a Sgt. Schulze when cases like Cho’s come up.

  19. Brad

    Two quick points:

    It’s interesting that y’all cast my attitude toward the military as “worshipful.” Just because I have great respect for the uniformed services (which would include police and related areas of public service) and don’t hate the military the way some of my interlocutors do doesn’t add up to worshipful.

    My respect is probably greater because I could not serve. It was always out of the question. Thank God I never had to report for a physical and actually experience the rejection (I was only eligible for the draft for one year; it ended when I was 19 — before that I was in college and had a high lottery number); I would have found that rather hard to take personally.

    But I always knew that as soon as the military knew my medical history (and how could they NOT; as a dependent, so much of my medical care had been provided by the military), I would certainly have been rejected. The irony is that it was my asthma that would have been the deal-killer. I always thought that was ridiculous. Give me an inhaler, and I could have kept up with the other guys. (Although I do understand that if you are the military and you can choose between a guy with asthma and one without, you’d go with the latter.) To me, the real obstacle to life in boot camp or on board ship or in a war zone or in a garrison barracks was my extremely limited diet due to food allergies. That sounds ridiculous to people who think “food allergies” means you might get a rash or hay fever. But when basic staples can be life-threatening to you, it’s a very real obstacle.

    I could have faked not having asthma, to a point. I couldn’t have faked not being able to eat the food. Not for long.

    Anyway, the whole thing is a lifelong sore subject with me, because I very much would have liked to serve.

  20. Doug Ross

    We don’t hate the military, we hate the mission. The military is carrying out the orders given by the executive branch which has an objective that goes well beyond self-defense. There has been no war declared by Congress.

    “Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution, vests in the Congress the exclusive power to declare war, in the following wording:
    [Congress shall have Power…] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;”

    The vast majority of those who serve do so with honor and deserve our complete respect. It’s only at the highest levels where the politics merge with the tax dollars that one begins to question who the military serves.
    We are a nation driven by defense contractors these days.

  21. Libb

    Thank you…

    For the record my father and all 3 of his brothers were in the military (2 uncles made the Air Force and Navy their careers). Hate the military? No. I have tremendous respect for the sacrifice those in uniform have made and continue to make. And it is that respect that motivates me to question why we are sending our troops in harm’s way for the wrong reasons.

  22. bud

    I don’t hate the military per-se. I just see it as a necessary arm of government that exists for the sole purpose of protecting us from foreign militaries. It has a role in society but shouldn’t be held in any higher regard than any other profession. I can hold the same admiration for a well-trained military man or woman as I can for a well-trained, skilled, engineer, accountant, astronaut or UPS delivery man. They all have jobs to do and when they do it well we all benefit. I just don’t see the need for endless holidays, parades, memorials, monuments and other things that really do border on worship.

    What really disturbs me though is how the military is misused. We send them to places that pose no threat on us. That would be akin to sending the UPS guy to deliver packages in places that are not supposed to receive anything.

    Eventually we forget about the first misguided war and get involved in a new one. We just never learn. And to top it all off we build a monument to every war.

    If it’s the trappings of the military that is so appealing why not form a group of service people to perform charitable tasks and let them wear fancy uniforms. This would be sort of like a Salvation Army on steroids. Then once they’ve achieved some successful mission of mercy we can build a monument to them. I can see it now, a huge wall on the DC Mall listing the names of all the children who received a hot meal or a toy on Christmas day. Now that would be something to celebrate.

  23. KP

    “Who pays gets to see” is completely reasonable. It’s one thing for an adult doing a job for pay to have privacy expectations and quite another for a teenager going to college on her parent’s dime to be able to keep her grades secret. That’s out of control.

  24. Doug Ross


    “or UPS delivery man”

    Don’t forget the pizza delivery guy. Did you get the pepperoni pizza there hot and on time? MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

  25. Herb Brasher

    Brad, you didn’t serve. I didn’t either. But my wife’s brother did, at 18-19 as an infantryman in Vietnam. He came back because he was wounded, most of his buddies didn’t, and he lives with that every day of his life.

    He lives with scenes of his buddies shooting wounded Vietnamese because they might be informants. He lives with facing a Viet Cong soldier (who he guessed was no more than 16), and not being able to shoot him–but he thinks it was one of the same ones who came back later that night and ambushed his platoon.

    He saw 18 year olds take a rifle and shoot water buffaloes of Vietnamese just because it was “fun,” even though it was probably the farmer’s livelihood at stake.

    If I’m not mistaken, there’s some scientific proof out there that a young person’s brain usually isn’t fully developed until their early 20s. I’d like to think that we’d wait a few years before we send young men into that scenario. I’d also like to wring the necks, sometimes, of the politicians who sauntered into that misery like John Wayne into a saloon, when the whole thing should have been handled a lot differently.

    And that probably includes Iraq as well.

  26. Kathryn Fenner

    @Herb–you are correct about the brain’s not being fully developed until one is about 25–the part that understands consequences (I am not making this up.)

    Very moving post. Thank you for sharing.


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