Campus violence prompts swift response to privacy guidelines

By Shannon Keough
November 15, 2007

Ashley Cook/news editor

The U.S. Department of Education recently clarified student privacy guidelines in the wake of the massacre at Virginia Tech.

Since the massacre at Virginia Tech last April, many people, especially parents and friends of the victims, blame the university for not acting on warning signs that the shooter, Seung Hui Cho, was a potential threat to others. Many believe that some of the lives lost that day could have been saved if university faculty and staff communicated warning signs noticed beforehand. But many faculty and staff, both at Virginia Tech and at Cabrini, believe they cannot tell others of a student’s warning signs because of privacy restrictions.

Cho’s roommates said that he was a stalker and suicidal; his teachers and classmates believed the plays he wrote indicted he was disturbed. He was taken to counseling but he never followed through with it.

With ongoing campus violence, many faculty and administrators at colleges and universities have sought guidance on what they can do when a student seems disturbed. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 details ways in which schools should handle certain situations and under what circumstances it is possible to share information about students. Cabrini’s policies are in compliance with this act, according to the Vice President of Student Development, Dr. Christine Lysionek.

This act has been said to cause confusion, though, which is why the U.S. Department of Education has recently created brochures for educators and parents that explain the law more simply. There is a different brochure for K-12 educators, one for colleges and one for parents. The difference that separates K-12 and college is that once a student turns 18, they must sign a consent form if they wish for their parents to know their educational and disciplinary records.

At Cabrini, freshmen are asked to fill out a waiver form to disclose, or not disclose, their academic or disciplinary records to parents or guardians.

Dr. Christine Lysionek, Vice President of student development, said that if a student is failing his classes and a parent calls someone at the college to ask about the student’s grades, that person can not reveal any information. They would first need to check with the student’s waiver form located in the Registrar’s Office. If the waiver said not to disclose information then that person is supposed to respect that right.

The exception to this is when a student is documented for alcohol and drug offenses the school must contact the parents.

Dr. Sara Maggitti, director of counseling services, said that Counseling Services is obligated by law to maintain confidentiality and they go to great lengths to do so. They must have the consent of a student before disclosing any information.

Exceptions are made in cases of students like Cho, however. Counseling Services must “breach confidentiality in such cases of imminent danger to self or another person (suicide or homicide), in cases of child abuse or in the event of a court order,” Maggitti said. When she believes that someone will commit suicide or homicide, “I inform the student that I am required to notify the appropriate authorities and will then connect them to the appropriate resources, usually the hospital for psychiatric treatment.”

If an instructor is having trouble with a student for any reason or believes that person is a danger to others, the instructor should send that student to Counseling Services or Academic Affairs, depending on the problem, according to Lysionek.

The Student Handbook says students must take an Involuntary Leave of Absence when they take part in behavior that is harmful to themselves, others or affects the living and learning environment at Cabrini.

During an emergency, “we would only be allowed to release the least amount of information that it would take to keep students safe,” Dr. Jeff Gingerich, associate professor of sociology, said.

Shannon Keough

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