Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools: An Action Guide - September 1996

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Information Sharing and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

Schools are often called upon to provide information regarding current or former students to a variety of individuals and organizations. For example, social service agencies, law enforcement agencies, youth-serving organizations, and health agencies often seek information concerning students to whom they are providing services. While the sharing of information contained in records systems (education and law enforcement records) maintained by the school is critical to the effective delivery of services, it cannot be done indiscriminately because Federal laws restrict the release of information contained in a student's education records.

Enacted in 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy interests of students and parents through standards designed to discourage abusive and unwarranted disclosure of a student's education records. FERPA provides parents access to education records and limits nonconsensual disclosure. Failure of an educational agency or institution to comply with FERPA can result in the loss of Federal funding.

Many State and local educational agencies and institutions narrowly interpret FERPA in their information release policies. Educators frequently decide to err on the side of caution by establishing policies recognizing a generalized right to privacy with regard to all information on students. Unfortunately, overly restrictive policies pose significant obstacles to meaningful information sharing between agencies.

The Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 (IASA) amended FERPA to permit educators, pursuant to a State statute, to disclose information to State and local officials, as long as the disclosure concerns the juvenile justice system. As a result, schools in States that have passed such statutes may now disclose information on students to other local and State agencies.

For example, the State of Florida enacted legislation requiring the State's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (DHRS) to establish an early delinquency intervention program with the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, district school board personnel, the office of the State's Attorney, the office of the Public Defender, and community service agencies that work with children. The Florida law specifies the type of information the cooperating agencies are to share with the DHRS and directs specified agencies and persons to cooperate with law enforcement agencies with regard to releasing information about juvenile offenders.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is FERPA?

FERPA is a Federal law that affords parents the right to have access to their children's education records, the right to seek to have the records amended, and the right to have some control over the disclosure of information from the records. When a student turns 18 or enters college, the rights under FERPA transfer to the student.

What is an "education record"?

FERPA defines "education record" as a record that contains information directly related to a student and that is maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for such agency or institution. The following types of records are examples of education records: report cards, surveys and assessments, health unit records, special education records, or information about parents maintained by a school.

What type of information is included in an education record?

FERPA does not address the types of information a school may or may not maintain in education records. Rather, FERPA affords parents and eligible students rights with respect to any education records maintained by an educational agency or institution. However, as noted above, the term "education record" is very broad and, with limited exceptions, includes most information that schools maintain on students.

Who controls or manages an education record?

Each educational agency or institution determines which officials are responsible for maintaining education records and for ensuring that parents are afforded their rights under FERPA.

What is a "law enforcement unit record"?

A "law enforcement unit record" is a record that is maintained by a law enforcement unit of the school or school district that was created by that law enforcement unit for the purpose of law enforcement.

What is a "law enforcement unit"?

A "law enforcement unit" is an individual, office, department, division, or other component of a school or school district, such as a unit of commissioned police officers or noncommissioned security guards, that is officially authorized or designated by the school district to (1) enforce any Federal, State, or local law or (2) maintain the physical security and safety of schools in the district. Larger metropolitan school districts, such as the Houston (Texas) Independent School District, employ commissioned police officers who have the responsibility of enforcing laws. However, many smaller school districts do not hire commissioned police officers but rather officially designate an individual in the district with the responsibilities of a law enforcement unit.

What information can be shared from a law enforcement unit record?

FERPA does not prohibit the sharing of information from a law enforcement unit record. A record such as a crime or incident report that is created and maintained for a law enforcement purpose is not protected from disclosure by FERPA. Although a student's education records may be shared with a school's law enforcement unit, the law enforcement unit may not disclose the education records without prior parental or student consent (if the student is 18 years or older) or under a specified exception in FERPA.

What information from an education record can be shared with (1) other law enforcement entities and (2) non-law enforcement entities?

Subject to certain exceptions, FERPA provides that schools must obtain written consent from a parent or guardian before disclosing education records to a third party. However, there are several exceptions to this general rule.

One exception allows a school to disclose information from a student's education records to appropriate authorities in connection with an emergency in order to protect the health or safety of a student or other individuals.

Another exception allows a school to disclose information from a student's education records in compliance with a lawfully issued subpoena or court order. Generally, before complying with a subpoena or court order for education records, a school must make a reasonable effort to notify the parent. However, a school need not notify the parent if the subpoena or court order has been issued for a law enforcement purpose and the court or other issuing agency orders that the existence or contents of the subpoena not be disclosed.

Nothing in FERPA prevents a school official from disclosing to local law enforcement authorities information that is based on that official's personal knowledge or observation and not from an education record.

Schools may also disclose any information on a student, without the parent's prior written consent, to officials of another school where the student seeks or intends to enroll.

Additionally, Federal, State, and local educational authorities may be provided information on students in connection with an audit or evaluation of Federal or State-supported education programs or with the enforcement of or compliance with Federal legal requirements that relate to those programs.

Does FERPA permit schools to work effectively with juvenile justice system agencies to address juvenile violence and delinquency?

Yes. As previously noted, FERPA allows schools--while maintaining compliance with the law--to play a vital role in a community's efforts to identify at-risk and delinquent youth and provide services before a child becomes involved in serious and violent crime. As more and more States establish programs for the sharing of information designed to serve students as part of a juvenile justice system, the emphasis on neighbor-hood school participation in interagency information-sharing agreements will increase. FERPA need not be a barrier to this progress toward proactive information-sharing networks.

How can a school obtain technical assistance on FERPA?

The U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Department of Justice, are working together to develop and publish a guidebook entitled FERPA: Schools and Interagency Communication for Delinquency Intervention and Prevention for educators and juvenile justice professionals who are interested in developing interagency information-sharing agreements. The guidebook is designed to eliminate areas of ambiguity and provide clear guidance for allowable information sharing while maintaining State and local compliance with FERPA.

The Family Policy Compliance Office in the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for administering FERPA. Any educational agencies or institutions with specific questions on FERPA needing technical assistance or desiring inservice training may contact the Family Policy Compliance Office, U.S. Department of Education, 600 Independence Avenue SW., Washington, DC 20202-4605. Additionally, institutions may contact the office by e-mail at or by calling 202-260-3887.

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