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.