The Ethics of Student Confidentiality & Student Affairs
Student affairs professionals typically have access to sensitive and confidential information. Students seek out student affairs professionals when facing any number of stresses, challenges, or crises. They often share deeply personal information with the expectation that confidentiality will be maintained. In most situations on most campuses, student affairs professionals are able to uphold this expectation. However, sometimes confidential information is shared, intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, one might turn to a supervisor or colleague for advice when presented with a challenging situation. In these instances, keeping the involved student(s) anonymous would still safeguard confidentiality. Conversely, many times practitioners are compelled to break confidentiality, such as when if a student mentions an intention to harm someone. Beyond the areas prescribed, when student affairs professionals violate a student’s confidentiality without maintaining anonymity, they not only violate federal laws such as the Family Educational Records Protection Act (FERPA), the law that protects the school records of all students, from pre-school to graduate school, they also put their institution at risk. However, most do not intentionally break student confidentiality; it often occurs without the person realizing it.
One example of a confidentiality pitfall is discussing student information in open or common areas. Many offices have a common area, especially if it is an office with a high volume of students (e.g., Residence Life, Counseling Center). How many times have you been walking through the common area discussing a student with another colleague? Frequently, students, parents, or visitors to the college will be waiting in these spaces and overhear conversations. Inadvertently, you can disclose student’s names, ID numbers, grade information, or worse, personal details students shared with you. Once the information has been made public, one cannot get it back. In order to avoid the risks of open or common areas, one should resist speaking about student issues in these places. Instead, staff members should meet in private offices to have conversations about students. When sharing information with the person making appointments for your department, one should write the information down or email them. This way, if there are others around, you avoid them overhearing your conversation. It is important for one to be aware of who is in an office area, whether they students, staff members, or other visitors.
A second risk is sharing information with other colleagues who are not directly related to the student’s situation. There will always be those interesting cases that one will just want to share with colleagues; however, this can be a precarious. There is also the risk of others sharing the information. A good rule to use when deciding whether to share student information is to ask yourself, “Why am I sharing this information?” and “How will it benefit the student?” Sometimes one can run into situations where a colleague or faculty member asks about a student. However, just because they work for the institution does not mean they are entitled to all student information. Always keep FERPA in mind as much of the information we use on a daily basis stems from or becomes an educational record. FERPA regulations state that school officials must have a “legitimate educational interest” (Ramirez, 2009) when sharing information. In other words, does the individual need the information as a function of their job? This may vary from institution to institution depending on the parameters of responsibility and job function. An example may be an advisor who reaches out to a faculty member to discuss a student who is having health issues outside of the classroom and may need to miss some classes. In this case it may be beneficial for the faculty member be informed that the advisor is working with the student due to ongoing health issues. In turn, the faculty member, maybe willing to be flexible with schoolwork. However, the advisor can inform the faculty member without providing specific detail about the medical issues.
While it is important to make every effort to protect student confidentiality—particularly in situations in which student anonymity cannot be kept—there are certain exceptions where staff members can—or should—share confidential information with certain parties. One such exception may occur when staff members are working with a student and are unsure about how to proceed. For example, if a student is having difficulty with a faculty member based on his or her disability, it would be appropriate to discuss the issue with disability services. In this situation, it is appropriate to consult a colleague with relevant experience in dealing with the issue. Another example is if a student presents a situation or behaviors that are concerning his or her mental health; in this case it is appropriate to refer him or her to campus counseling services. One also can limit the amount of identifying student information, only sharing what is necessary to fully understand the situation. Again, always ask yourself, “Why am I sharing this information?” and “How will it benefit the student?”
Another exception to student privacy is in the case of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or sexual violence. In a 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), the Department of Education states “The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interfere[s] with students rights to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime” (Dear Colleague Letter, 2011). There are several reasons why a student may come to a student affairs professional after facing sexual assault or harassment. When a report of sexual assault or harassment is made, how student confidentiality is handled, changes. Department of Education Title IX regulations require that school administrators take immediate action when dealing with cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or sexual violence. One should consult with his or her supervisor on how to proceed. Student affairs practitioners should also be proficient in their institutional and state policies on sexual violence and sexual harassment.
As stated earlier, student confidentiality has been entrusted to student affairs practitioners. While there are legal guidelines that call for the protection of confidentiality, there is also the ethical obligation to ensure a student’s trust is not violated. For graduate students and new professionals, it is important to build a strong ethical foundation from the start of your career. This will allow you to develop strategies for obtaining and maintaining the trust and respect of your students and colleagues. For those who are experienced in higher education for a while, reflect upon your approach to student confidentiality. You are setting the ethical standard of what is expected for those you supervise and those who are just entering the field of student affairs. Finally, it is important to maintain current, accurate knowledge of all regulations related to privacy of student records and electronic transmission of records, and up-to-date knowledge of privacy legislation on a regular basis (ACPA, 2006).
Please note that this article in no way should be construed as legal advice. Individuals should consult their institutional legal counsel for specific legal advice
ACPA: College Student Educators International. (2006). Statement of ethical principles & standards. Washington, D.C: Ethics Committee.
Ramirez, C.A. (2008). FERPA clear and simple: The college professionals guide to compliance. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.4.
U.S. Department of Education. (2011). Dear colleague letter (OCR Publication, 4 April 2011). Washington DC: Office for Civil Rights.
ACPA: College Student Educators International. (n.d.). Ethics standards and practices. Retrieved from: www.myacpa.org/ethics (2012, June 19).
Fried, J. (2003). Ethical Standards and Principles. In S. Komives, D. Woodward & Associates (Ed.), Student Services: A handbook for the profession, 4th ed. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.
U.S. Department of Education. (2012). Family Policy Compliance Office. Retrieved from: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/index.html (2012, June 19).
About the Authors
Shammah Bermudez is the Coordinator of Disability Services for Branch Campuses at Delaware County Community College. He is an active member of ACPA and is currently a member of the Ethics Committee, the Standing Committee on Disability, and the Commission for Student Development at the 2-year colleges.
Please e-mail inquiries to Shammah Bermudez.
André Durham is a recent graduate of the Student Affairs master’s program at the University of Virginia and currently is an Assistant Director & Academic Advisor in the University Honors Program at the University of Cincinnati. He is an active member of ACPA and is a member of the Ethics Committee.
Please e-mail inquiries to André Durham.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.