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Public School Privacy

The question of the right of privacy and, specifically, who should have access to student records has divided parents and students from school teachers and administrators. There are strong arguments on both sides. School teachers and administrators believe, traditionally, that they should be able to deal with the children they teach in utter confidence—especially when it comes to evaluation of ability, behavior, and psychological factors. School administrators may have critical opinions and evaluations to make and pass on to colleagues in order to effectively deal with a particular student’s potential for success or failure in school. Release of these opinions to the family or the student may actually have a detrimental effect on the student and/or the teacher or the school’s ability to help the student.

On the other hand, students and parents have a deep interest in knowing how they or their child is evaluated—to know what school administrators are saying about the child and what impact those opinions are having on his or her progress in school. Parents may worry that negative evaluations or assessments may be off-base, inaccurate, or the result of an objective evaluation that misses personal situations and emotions. In addition, negative evaluations may be the result of physical or psychological handicaps or deficiencies in ability that need special attention and may be helped if parents or students are made aware of them. Parents have a responsibility for the quality of education that their children receive as well as a right to participate in decisions that affect class placement and particular courses and subjects taught.

This dynamic between the parents’ right to have input into their child’s education and the school’s responsibility to professionally teach and discipline its students is what has driven the development of certain privacy rules. There is also a new dynamic that is becoming a factor in education and, specifically, access to records: over the last thirty years, the growing disillusionment with our traditional education system, which insisted on certain standards of performance for all students, has given way to the belief that each child has different learning curves and behavioral norms that need to be respected. As a result, standards of education and behavior are no longer standard and regular but adjust to the needs, wants, and potential of each student and his or her family. In order to monitor the attention that individual children are getting, laws have guaranteed parents access to student records.

Another area concerning school records that is becoming an issue encompasses child abuse, neglect, and personal health. With today’s broader definition of abuse, a family’s religious convictions or practices, cultural heritage, social orientation, or lack of awareness may qualify. In an extreme example, state authorities took custody of minor children because their parents failed to keep their children’s dental appointments! There may be a need for parents to monitor school records in order to see that educators are not misinterpreting and misconstruing various family customs, practices, and behavior or undermining certain training being done at home.


The Family Educational Records Protection Act (FERPA) was originally passed in 1976 and has been amended many times since. Its purpose is to guarantee parents free access to student school records. Under provisions of the Act, the Secretary of Education has the authority to withhold all federal funding to institutions that do not make school records available to a student’s parents. There are exceptions to this rule, such as authorizing the transfer of transcripts when a student changes schools or applies for admission elsewhere, for researchers doing studies of educational techniques and practices when such research can be conducted confidentially and anonymously, for state or federal officials conducting audits of public assistance programs, or in the course of normal business. Many states now rely on FERPA to protect student privacy and insure parental access. A few states have gone beyond the protections of the federal act.

Inside Public School Privacy