Lawmaker Seeks Clarity in Dispute Over Campus Counseling Records

U.S. Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) this week asked the U.S. Education Department to clarify a provision of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that may inadequately protect the privacy of medical records of college students. In a letter to the department's chief privacy officer, she questioned whether current federal law permits sexual assault victims' medical and therapy records to be released as part of a student's education record.

"Campus sexual assault is a serious issue," Bonamici said in a statement. "I am troubled that there appears to be a loophole in federal privacy law that allows the personal and private conversations a student has after a traumatic experience to be released by a university under the laws governing educational records. Students who seek treatment on campus deserve the same level of privacy as other patients, whose medical records are protected under federal health law."

Specifically, Bonamici requested answers to the following questions regarding the distinction between students' treatment records and their education records:

  • FERPA regulations govern whether an institution may disclose students’ education records without consent (including treatment records that are deemed to be education records), but do any regulations or laws restrict an institution’s ability to access and share students’ treatment records within the institution?
  • Does federal regulation or guidance prevent students’ treatment records from being shared with other offices of an institution that are not involved in students’ treatment?
  • In addition, is there any guidance, regulation, or law that limits whether an institution may declare that a treatment record is being used for a non-treatment purpose or otherwise deem a treatment record to be an education record?

The letter appeared to have been prompted by a well-publicized case at the University of Oregon, where college officials retrieved the counseling records of a student in response to her lawsuit against it, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The suit accuses the institution of violating the student's civil rights after she was raped by three basketball players.

Last week, the Education Department stated that FERPA allows colleges to see records like those in the Oregon case to defend themselves in litigation, as long as such steps are not prohibited by state law. The agency also warned that it is "critically important to the department that all higher-education institutions ensure safe, nondiscriminatory learning environments that are free from harassment and sexual violence for our students. Any attempt to intimidate individuals who raise or support complaints about sexual violence would raise serious concerns of retaliation."


Related Links

U.S. Representative Suzanne Bonamici's Press Release

The Chronicle of Higher Education