By Melissa BirdIn recent years, violence in schools, including many universities, has become more prevalent and gained the attention of the entire country. Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania is sponsoring a bill that he hopes will help prevent further violence by eradicating the liability of schools after disclosing information.
Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, colleges and universities are allowed to disclose certain information about students if it is determined that they pose some sort of harm to themselves or others. There has been a lot of finger pointing and many lawsuits about who was responsible in cases where tragedies occurred.
"Parents have sued universities for telling them [about their troubled child], and parents have sued universities for not telling them," said Anthony Jenkins, dean of students.
The Mental Health Security for Families and Education Act, HR 2220, would allow universities to disclose any information they deem necessary to the parents of mentally troubled students as long as they get the written consent from a mental health professional stating that the student poses a significant threat that could increase the chances for suicide, homicide or other violent acts. This would remove liability from the university.
"Unfortunately, the interpretation of FERPA is so unclear that schools are fearful of being sued," Murphy told members of Congress earlier this month. "The just released report from the National Association of Attorneys General Task Force on Campus Safety calls for an update of the FERPA laws that would allow for protection from liability if schools make good-faith efforts to protect students, faculty and staff, which is precisely what my bill offers." Murphy's bill comes as a reaction to the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech. Some say it is just a bandage for a bigger issue.
"Every now and then a politician will create a feel good bill just to make people feel better, Jenkins said. "We've done this with crime in this country with new gun laws, but where this becomes a problem is how do you enforce it and how do you police it and is it practical."
So, what does this mean to the University of Houston-Clear Lake? "It's real clear at this university if someone said ‘I'm going to kill someone' or ‘I'm going to kill myself' that we would notify the police first of all to try to protect the person and anyone in harms way," said Darlene Biggers, associate vice president of student services. "We take that very seriously." The problem with Murphy's bill, say different university officials, is that it becomes redundant to FERPA's existing policies. "Universities can do all of that now,"
Jenkins said. "The university would contact that individual's parents in consultation with counseling services in an effort to see if there is some historical piece of the puzzle we've missed and how we can create some support unit for that student."
Some officials have also wondered if contacting the parents would make much of a difference in these delicate situations.
"What are parents going to do if they are 500 miles away like in most universities," Biggers said. "If you think someone is going to harm someone, you need to notify the police right away."
Although Murphy has caught some flack from universities, the intention behind his bill is being understood.
"I can understand [Murphy's] thinking and I've seen it work both ways," Jenkins said. "I've seen the courts say ‘you did reach out, you did everything you could, it was a good-faith effort and you couldn't save the student, but we don't see any negligence on the university's part' and I've seen courts that said ‘you had the information, you didn't use it correctly and we're going to teach you a lesson."
The main issue in Murphy's bill is the liability of universities in times of campus tragedies. By removing liability, the hope is that universities will no longer be fearful of being sued and simply report information about troubled students to their parents.
"Let's take down the walls between parents and schools," Murphy said to members of Congress. "Let's take action now to save lives tomorrow."