FOR COMMENT On Notification of Parents in Alcohol/Drug Violations

We present to the Penn community the report of the Committee on Changes to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which governs disclosure of certain educational records. The committee, led by Dr. Rick Beeman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was comprised of faculty, students, and staff. During its deliberations, the committee focused its concern on those changes to FERPA enacted in October 1998 which permit colleges and universities to disclose to parents certain instances in which their son or daughter have violated the school's drug or alcohol policies. The report provides a framework for considering if, how, and when the school should notify parents of these instances. (It should also be noted that the amendments to FERPA also now permit colleges and universities greater latitude in making public information relating to disciplinary matters involving crimes of violence. The committee will reconvene shortly to consider the complex issues relating to this change in federal law.)

The recommendations of the committee and its consultation efforts are documented in the report. We are calling for comment as the next phase in the consultation process. In order to ensure that the campus community has time to deliberate and offer us input, we will welcome comments until Friday, October 15. Please send comments to FERPA@pobox or write to us respectively at 100 College Hall/6380 or 110 College Hall/6303. We will also look forward to campus-wide discussions such as the one being planned by the Undergraduate Assembly. We will make a final policy decision after the comment period concludes.

--Judith Rodin, President, and Robert Barchi, Provost

Report and Recommendations of the Committee on Changes to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

In response to the October 1998 amendments to FERPA, the President and Provost convened a committee to advise them about what changes, if any, the University should make with respect to its policies on disclosure of certain educational records. In particular, the committee focused on the issue of "parental notification", i.e. whether and under what circumstance the University should notify the parents of students under 21 when the student has violated University policy with respect to the use or possession of alcohol or drugs, as the law now permits. Penn's current policy is to notify parents only when a student faces serious and immediate health/medical risk (see Penn's current Confidentiality policy--PennBook 1998-99, p. 31).

Committee Work and Consultation

The Committee met several times and also sought the input of a broad spectrum of the Penn community and other higher education institutions. The Committee sent inquiry letters within Penn to the Athletic Department, Admissions Office, student groups, health educators, University Council's Student Affairs Committee, and parents. Our primary responses came from students, health educators and parents. Rick Beeman and Michele Goldfarb met with a group of parents of undergraduates from the College. The students on the Committee, Jamie Lustbader and Paul Goydan, compiled responses from a sampling of undergraduate students at Penn. Kate Ward-Gaus, Penn's health educator on alcohol and related issues, explained her position on parental notification to the Committee. Finally, Michele Goldfarb met with University Council's Student Affairs Committee and received a recommendation from that group.

The Committee also sought information regarding how other schools were reacting to the legislative changes. We reviewed a wide variety of responses and it is fair to say that there is a wide diversity of opinion on this issue. The responding schools were about evenly divided, with half choosing not to alter their current policies as a result of the new law and about half responding with a change in policy. Among those choosing to change their notification policies, a minority chose to notify parents anytime an undergraduate student violated alcohol policy. However, a majority has chosen to notify parents only in specific situations usually involving multiple violations, health risks, or serious accompanying disciplinary matters (e.g. potential suspension from school and/or eviction from University residence). Ultimately, our Committee concluded that Penn should move in this direction, notifying parents of alcohol violations under specified circumstances.

The Committee's Consensus re: Policy Considerations

The consensus of the Committee was that, in general and as a matter of principle, the University's long-standing approach of respecting the autonomy, privacy and adult status of our students, should continue to guide our notification policies. Therefore, there was little enthusiasm for notifying parents every time a student was involved in an alcohol infraction. There was also a strong belief on the Committee that the act of notifying parents should not be conveyed as a "punitive" action or be used as a "threat". In addition, there was a sense that the act of notifying parents could be used as a means of generating discussion, particularly between our students and their parents, which would be constructive and compatible with the University's educational mission. Finally, there was a concern within the Committee that parental notification that occurred only after a student found him or herself in repeated or serious disciplinary trouble was both too late for that particular student and also was likely to reach only a very small percentage of the student population, some of whom could benefit from earlier parental intervention.

Within its general consensus on the importance of protecting student privacy and confidentiality, the Committee (and the Penn constituents whose input was received) felt strongly that there were certain circumstances which overrode these values, and when such circumstances were present, the ability of the parent to be helpful and/or the parents' need to be informed outweighed other considerations.

Committee Recommendation

The Committee recommends that the University continue to notify parents and guardians of students, regardless of the student's age or disciplinary status, in cases of emergency such as injury, extreme or life-threatening health risk or where there are other serious concerns regarding a student's mental or physical health. It is the Committee's understanding that this is not a departure from current practice. It is anticipated that this notification will continue to come from the VPUL or her designee.

In response to recent legislation, the Committee further recommends that the University grant the Director of the Office of Student Conduct the discretion to determine whether and how to notify parents or guardians of students under 21 who are found to be in violation of University policies regarding the use or possession of alcohol or drugs, when the violation is determined to be serious or repeated.

Guidelines for notification-any of the following circumstances can trigger notification:

A. The student has had previous minor incidents of underage alcohol possession and consumption and therefore may face eviction from University residence;

B. The student has committed a violation which was accompanied by other misconduct involving personal injury to himself or others or serious damage to property;

C. The student's violation could result in a separation from either the University or from the College Houses.

The Committee further recommends that, where possible, the student whose parents are to be notified under these guidelines, be informed before such notification occurs and given an opportunity to initiate parental contact.

Finally, the Committee makes an additional recommendation, based primarily on discussions with parents and with the Student Affairs Committee. The Committee appreciates that this final recommendation represents a more dramatic departure from current practice than the previous policy recommendations. Moreover, the committee recognizes that there are a number of issues--both practical and philosophical--that would need to be addressed before the approach suggested below could be successfully implemented. However, given discussions with parents and University administrators during which concern was expressed that parents and students be given an opportunity to choose to be informed of alcohol/drug violations which fall outside the purview of these guidelines, the Committee undertook to frame a response. This response would also address the concern referred to earlier regarding the fear that parental notification following serious disciplinary involvement was "too little, too late" for too few students.

Therefore, it is recommended that the University consider developing a "consent to be notified" form which would require the signatures of both students and parents and which would serve as both a release and a request for notification from the University in circumstances which might otherwise fall outside the notification guidelines stated here (e.g. a first time alcohol possession/consumption violation in University residence or a minor underage possession citation from the U.P.P.D.)

Richard Beeman, Chair

David Brownlee

Brenda Fraser

Michele Goldfarb

Paul Goydan

Phyllis Holtzman

Jamie Lustbader

Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum

Stephen Steinberg

David Williams

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 5, September 28, 1999