Pubdate: Thu, 6 Dec 2007
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Page: D1
Copyright: 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Elizabeth Bernstein
Bookmark: (Students - United States)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (date rape)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


Exploiting an Exception to Federal Privacy Laws, Schools Increasingly 
Notify Parents When Kids Are Caught With Alcohol

When Mindy and Tom Gunn sent their son away to college this fall, 
they expected the school to send them a bill. They didn't expect a 
letter saying he'd been caught drinking.

But two weeks after their son John enrolled at the University of 
Wisconsin-Whitewater, the school notified them that the 18-year-old 
had violated the campus drinking policy. The letter encouraged his 
parents to talk to him about it. And it invited them to call a school 
official if they had questions.

"One of my biggest fears when we sent him away was that he'd get into 
the party scene," says Mindy Gunn, 48, of Janesville, Wis. "I was 
glad to know the school will keep track of what he does and let me know."

The Virginia Tech shootings and other tragic incidents on campuses 
this year have shown that many colleges and universities are 
reluctant to reach out to parents when there are signs of trouble, 
such as a missing or potentially suicidal student. Citing a federal 
law meant to protect student privacy, many schools rope off young 
people's records from parents and authorities. But in one area, 
administrators are increasingly exploiting an exception in the law 
that allows them to reach out: drinking and drugs. A growing number 
of colleges, such as Texas Tech and Ohio University, are deciding to 
call mom and dad about underage drinking and illegal drug use, often 
at the very first signs of trouble.

In an effort to involve parents early on, the University of New 
Mexico in Albuquerque this fall began sending letters to parents of 
underage students the first time their child is caught drinking or 
using drugs -- a toughening of their four-year-old policy of 
notifying parents after a second offense. Parents "have been an 
integral part of their sons' or daughters' lives forever," says Randy 
Boeglin, dean of students and director of residence life. "Our 
challenge then is to bring them into the partnership mode with us."

Schools say they are being spurred to create or strengthen 
parental-notification policies by new reports of excessive drinking 
on campuses, as well as worries over their own liability for 
students' substance-abuse problems. The concern is that student 
injuries related to alcohol use could give rise to lawsuits. In 
addition, the tragedy at Virginia Tech in April, where a troubled 
student killed 32 people and then himself, has served as a catalyst 
for schools to re-evaluate how and when they will reach out to parents.

They're also getting indirect encouragement from the U.S. Department 
of Education, which recently provided new guidance for colleges and 
universities on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or 
Ferpa, the 1974 law that protects the information in a student's 
educational record, including grades and disciplinary reports. Ferpa 
contains exceptions that allow schools to share information with 
parents or authorities in certain circumstances, including when the 
school deems there is a "health or safety emergency" or if the 
parents declare the student to be a tax dependent.

The college parental-notification policies for alcohol and drug 
violations utilize an exception added in 1998 to Ferpa that allows 
schools to call parents if a student gets an alcohol or drug 
violation and is under 21 years of age. After the law was changed, 
some colleges created parental-notification policies, while others 
insisted that contacting parents would go against their goal of 
nurturing independence in their students.

Whose Responsibility

The alcohol exception is perhaps easier for colleges to use than 
exceptions for, say, health and safety, where it is harder to 
determine when to act. "What is a health or safety emergency? And 
what is an imminent risk of danger to the student? Those are nebulous 
terms...whereas the drug and alcohol exception has a direct tie to 
judicial proceedings, so it's clear whose responsibility it is to 
act," says Karen-Ann Broe, senior risk analyst at United Educators, a 
risk-management and insurance company in Chevy Chase, Md.

To ensure that all schools understand their options, last month the 
DOE issued three new Ferpa guides: for parents, universities and K-12 
schools. "We want to emphasize that you can involve parents with 
these students if there are problems," says LeRoy Rooker, the 
director of the Family Policy Compliance Office at the DOE, which 
administers the law.

Indeed, college administrators are eager to find a solution for 
alcohol and drugs, which they say are among the most pervasive and 
intractable health-and-safety problems on their campuses. A study 
published in March by the National Center on Addiction and Substance 
Abuse at Columbia University, or CASA, found that in 2001 there were 
more than 1,700 deaths from unintentional alcohol-related injuries 
among college students, up 6% since 1998. Also in 2001, 97,000 
students were victims of alcohol-related date rape or sexual assault, 
and almost 700,000 students were assaulted by a student who had been 
binge drinking.

Comprehensive Solution

For years, colleges have been struggling to get a handle on the 
problem. They've made kids caught drinking illegally take online 
alcohol-education courses and banned alcohol advertising from 
sporting events. Now, more schools are seeing parents as one 
component in a comprehensive solution.

"Students are increasingly tied to their parents 24-7 with instant 
messaging, text messaging and cellphones," says Fran Cohen, dean of 
students and assistant vice president at the University of Rhode 
Island, one of the first schools to adopt a parental-notification 
policy, in 1999. "There's tremendous potential for parents to support 
the decisions of students."

But there are skeptics of the policies, as well. Some administrators 
worry that notifying parents at the first sign of trouble prevents 
students from learning to cope with their own problems. And campus 
health-care providers worry that the threat of parental notification 
will make students less likely to seek help for alcohol-related illnesses.

Even some parents are voicing concern: When the University of 
Missouri announced it was implementing a parental-notification policy 
several years ago, a number of parents wrote the school to say they 
felt the plan violated their children's right to privacy. The 
university then tweaked its proposed policy. Now, it sends a form at 
the beginning of each year to parents of new students under the age 
of 21 and asks them to sign and return it if they don't want to be 
notified that their child is using drugs or alcohol. So far in 2007, 
37 parents have opted out.

Nevertheless many parents, and even students, say the notification 
letters can be useful. Immediately after his violation for underage 
drinking at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in September, Mr. 
Gunn called his mom and told her a letter was coming from the 
university. She talked to him about being responsible and told him he 
would have to pay the $250 legal fine himself. (He was also put on 
probation for a year by the school, and ordered to take a $35 online 
alcohol-education course.) Now he says he hasn't been drinking since 
the incident. "The policy keeps kids in check," he says. "You can't 
really do anything and get away with it."

In May 2006, the University of Georgia ramped up its 
parental-notification policy. Instead of contacting parents after a 
second violation, administrators now send a letter home after the 
first offense. At the same time, the university toughened its minimum 
sanctions for an alcohol violation, putting students on probation for 
a first offense and suspending them if they get a second offense 
while on probation.

Last semester, the university sent out 248 notification letters to 
parents; 174 have gone out since the beginning of August, says 
Brandon Frye, assistant dean of students. But he says it's too early 
to tell if the policy is successful in reducing underage drinking.

'It's About Involvement'

Schools agree that for the policies to work, the key is to engage 
parents. "It's not just about notification, it's about involvement," 
says Lori Berquam, dean of students at the University of Wisconsin. 
In 2005, the university began calling parents of students who have 
alcohol or drug violations in certain circumstances, such as when a 
student is transferred to a detoxification center or a student gets 
three violations (a fourth results in suspension).

When talking to parents, Ms. Berquam or someone on her staff explains 
the school's concerns about their child and asks the parents if there 
is any background information they may be able to supply. If the 
school feels it is warranted, it may recommend counseling.

Tony and Lee Ann Christ say they desperately wish their son's school 
had reached out to them. In February 2004, their son, Brian, then a 
senior at the University of Virginia, called home and told his dad he 
needed help: He had become addicted to heroin. The elder Mr. Christ 
immediately took Brian out of school and sent him to rehab. In 
December 2004, he died of an overdose at age 22.

A Referral to Counseling

After his death, his parents learned that the university had caught 
their then-18-year-old son with marijuana in his room two weeks into 
his freshman year. The school had also caught him with beer in his 
room the next semester. The university's judiciary committee found 
him guilty of violating the school's alcohol and drug policy in both 
instances and mandated community service. The first time, a dean also 
referred him to counseling. The school never notified his parents, 
despite having a parental-notification policy already in place.

Officials at U.Va say the school's policy is to notify parents only 
after an actual arrest, or if there is reason to believe a student's 
health is in jeopardy. "We're trying to help students become 
independent adults and manage their own affairs," says Patricia M. 
Lampkin, vice president for student affairs. "It's a balancing act."

Brian was never arrested. And the school points out that his family 
did have an opportunity to observe him themselves when he took a 
leave from school the semester before he came out about his drug problem.

But Mr. Christ says he nevertheless wishes the school had taken the 
early signs more seriously. "Privacy as it's practiced today keeps 
parents in the dark," says Mr. Christ, 58, a stockbroker from Falls Church, Va.

This year, Mr. Christ encouraged U.Va to adopt a policy, called 
Brian's Rule, in which they would agree to "promptly and fully inform 
parents" if a dependent student's behavior was deemed destructive or 
illegal. The school declined to approve the plan, saying it believes 
its current policies are adequate.
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