Since last April’s shootings at Virginia Tech, some colleges have begun to disclose more information about students with mental health issues, a move that some say is a violation of student privacy rights.
According to the Wall Street Journal, more than half of the nation’s colleges have created administrative teams to analyze information about students who have exhibited a history of strange behavior.
But the University isn’t one of those schools.
Linda Green, a director in the Division of Student Affairs, said the University saw no reason to change its policy.
“It works well for both our students and for the University community,” Green said. “Our process and guidelines for managing students with mental illness have been developed over a number of years, and they are being evaluating continuously to make sure that they are still effective.”
But at schools with policies different from the University’s, counselors have been more open about releasing information on students with mental health concerns.
For instance, Cornell University’s policy encourages students and faculty to share information about a student if they’re concerned about that person’s behavior. As a result of the policy, Cornell officials notified one student’s parents when the student was living in a Cornell residence hall but had dropped out of school.
Jack Bernard, assistant general counsel at the University of Michigan, said he didn’t think Cornell’s intervention violates the Family Educational Rights and Protection Act, which bans schools from releasing a student’s education records.
“If you notice someone acting in a peculiar way, something that makes you concerned for their well being, you can call the police, you can call their parents,” Bernard said.
Some schools have been more guarded with student information. Last September, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came under fire for withholding information from the mother of a suicidal student, citing student privacy concerns. The student later committed suicide, and the student’s mother sued MIT for withholding information.
There is, though, a legal difference between when a regular person discloses information and when a counselor does.
A patient-physician relationship clause in University policy forbids Counseling and Psychological Services counselors from disclosing information about a student without that student’s written permission. The only exception is if a counselor believes the student is a risk to themselves or others. In that case, Green said, the counselor is required to call the Department of Public Safety.
Ian Randall, a graduate student in the School of Public Health, agreed with the University’s policy to withhold student information.
“The fact that the violence of Virginia Tech has been so publicized has made people quick to act,” he said. “But if there is a process in place to deal with student mental health issues, I think it should be followed in order to protect student privacy.”
Bernard said it’s still more difficult for a counselor to release information about students than it is for the general public.
“There may be some grey areas, particularly for people in counseling services, as to when they step outside their role as counselors,” Bernard said. “But if you or I see an observation of someone acting strangely, then there are a lot of places that you can call.”