Explaining the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

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No matter what role you play in an academic setting, it’s important to be aware of the laws and regulations defined by FERPA. From administrators and coaches down to student interns, any individual who officially interacts with student records should keep FERPA compliance in mind at all times – failing to comply can result in huge fines and other liabilities.

A Brief Overview of FERPA

FERPA, The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law provides a variety of rights for students, including the right to review their own records and the right to amend those records when a legitimate error is found. It also provides guidelines for rectifying any errors.

FERPA rights apply to the student directly, and they significantly curtail the assumed or implied “rights” of the parent. When a student, at the age of majority, is attending a college or university virtually all federal privacy rights are conferred upon that student. While colleges retain some discretion to disseminate directory information, personal details become confidential.

To Be Compliant, Athletic Programs Must Be a “Closed Book”

Maintaining FERPA compliance is just as important for members of an athletic program as it is for those in academic or business operations. However, it can be even more challenging, because an athletic program becomes more public and accessible as it grows more established and successful. Individuals outside the program may assume they have a “right to know.”

FERPA firmly establishes that no such right exists. In fact, even a student’s parents do not have any right to personal information about the student – such information can only be disclosed in response to a written waiver from the student. It should come as no surprise that such situations are exceptionally rare and typically go beyond the scope of athletic operations.

Where Does FERPA Noncompliance Risk Come From?

Most situations involving FERPA risk don’t arise from the actions of a parent or guardian. Instead, many FERPA liabilities are incurred as a result of incidental activities or because of the actions of a third party.

In today’s “always-on” social media climate, an infraction previously viewed as a minor mistake is now magnified tenfold and can lead to significant repercussions.  As the custodian of confidential information, the athletic program – and the university as a whole – can be held responsible for “negligence” as well as directly noncompliant actions. This means that athletic directors, coaches, and others need to be vigilant about confidentiality at all times. Luckily, the athletic community is only a fraction of the total student population.

Take these steps to reduce FERPA risk to the minimum:

  • Monitor and Properly Dispose of Hard Copies

Confidential athlete information disseminated for internal use is easy for both inside and outside actors to misuse. A few printed pages or even an entire folder can easily disappear from a busy office, locker area, or practice field. Use hard copies only when no other option is available. Destroy them carefully and completely in accordance with a written document disposal policy. Be cautious of printing sensitive information using computer hardware in publicly accessible places.

  • Maintain Electronic Records Within University Systems

Most students and athletic participants now own a cell phone. In a technology environment where you can “sync with one click,” it’s easy to distribute confidential information across your devices without even noticing it. Instead, maintain data only on approved university systems, such as email servers. If you absolutely must work with confidential information off the clock and are authorized to do so, use it only on a home desktop secured with firewall and antivirus programs. Avoid placing confidential data on personal email servers where their eventual deletion cannot be guaranteed.

  • Train Everyone on Their Compliance Responsibilities

FERPA compliance affects everyone who might reasonably come into contact with confidential student information, including high-level administrators and coaches, and also any student personnel or volunteers in the organization. Across the board, every individual should be briefed and occasionally spot-checked on confidentiality requirements and best practices. Half an hour is enough time to keep most stakeholders up to date on what to do and what to avoid.

  • Know How to Handle and Refer Information Requests

Caught off-guard or confused, anyone is at risk of accidentally saying more than they should. It’s important to understand how FERPA limits your interactions with the public and how you should handle any information requests. For example, certain schools have a designated public relations or HR person who handles information requests, or the school might also have a specific waiver to issue to students when a request is made. Do not, under any circumstances, volunteer information that might be protected by FERPA. Even public conversations at a bar or other social gathering places are subject to compliance requirements, so impromptu discussions on sensitive topics should be avoided.

  • Work Together on Written Policies and Enforce Them

In a busy and growing athletics department, mistakes may occasionally happen. If a worst-case scenario comes to pass and there’s a clear FERPA violation, do not panic. Written policies and procedures help show that every stakeholder is held to high standards when handling confidential information. These records can reduce the impact of violations on athletic operations at large and provide lessons learned to do better in the future. To be effective, however, a clear paper trail must exist over time and must show that policies had an actual impact on behavior.

Learn More

Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration program specializes in developing interscholastic Athletic Directors, building on the students’ passion for serving young student-athletes and running a highly-successful athletic department. Ohio University is a pioneer in sports education. By establishing the first academic program in the field of sports administration, this online program is recognized today as the premier professional training program for candidates seeking careers in the sports industry.

Sources

U.S. Department of Education, “Family Education Rights and Privacy Act”
Cornell Law School, “U.S. Code 1232 – Family Education and Privacy Rights”
Electronic Code of Federal Regulation, “PART 99—Family Educational Rights and Privacy”
National Association of Colleges and Employers, “FERPA Primer: The Basics and Beyond”