Last October, the United States Department of Education released a policy guidance document to to help educators and parents interpret federal privacy laws in an initiative prompted by the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.  The document was created in response to schools’ requests "for guidance on what information can be shared among government agencies and parents under the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act” (FERPA).  At that time, Congress was also considering revising FERPA to clearly permit school officials to contact parents if a student is considering suicide or a threat to attack someone.  Currently, FERPA allows officials to share information with parents or other agencies if there is a health or safety emergency, but there was concern – especially after the Virginia Tech incident – that the language is too vague.

On March 24, 2008, almost a year after the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) proposed regulations to clarify when colleges can release confidential information about students who might be a danger to themselves or others.   The proposed guidelines do not make any substantive changes under FERPA, but attempt to clarify that schools are permitted to report fears about students who might be a danger to themselves or others. Parents are among the parties who can be contacted if a student is at risk.  It is believed that the changes would provide colleges with more flexibility in defining a potentially dangerous situation, and would help ensure that counselors have the tools they need to reach out and build support systems around troubled students. 

HIPAA contains a similar exception for disclosures "to avert a serious threat to health and safety."  Under HIPAA, a covered entity is not prohibited by the federal Privacy Rule from disclosing protected health information if it believes, in good faith, that the use or disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public, and the disclosure is to a person reasonably able to prevent or lessen the treat, including the target of the threat.  State laws may, however, impose additional restrictions and must still be considered.

The deadline for comment on the DOE’s proposed regulation is May 8, 2008.