The U.S. Education Department has proposed rules to clarify when universities may release confidential student information and reassure college officials that they will not face penalties for reporting fears about mentally ill students, the New York Times says. Alhough the regulations would make no major substantive changes, lawyers said they were important to stop administrators from invoking the privacy act as an excuse for inaction. Said Washington, D.C., lawyer Sheldon Steinbach: “These regulations provide a psychological safety net for young, risk-averse administrators.”
The Virginia Tech shootings last April left 33 people dead, including the student gunman, Seung-Hui Cho. A review panels’ report said that because university officials misunderstood federal privacy laws as forbidding any exchange of a student's mental health information, they missed numerous indications of Cho's mental health problems. The new rules would create a safe harbor for campus administrators who see a significant threat to the health or safety of a student or others and disclose confidential information to people who can respond. The proposal would also bring the 1974 federal privacy law into the 21st century. It would extend coverage to online students and let universities release student information to contractors and consultants to whom they outsource work.