Your Right to Keep Your Records Private

What kind of information is kept in my student record?

We live in an information society, where important data can be sent across the globe in a matter of seconds, and where one computer can house as much data as an entire library. Most people in this country agree that the easy flow of information makes our lives easier but most people also are concerned about who gets to see and use our private information. Luckily for us, there are important regulations protecting personal student records some of the most personal information about you there is.

Think of your student record as a short chronicle of your educational life. Schools keep records of your academic and personal progress, from kindergarten through graduation. And some schools keep student files for many years after the person has graduated or left.

Student records can include quantitative information like test scores, intelligence quotients (IQs), and grades. They also can include more subjective information like progress reports, psychological and psychiatric reports, and teacher evaluations.

While your student record is obviously a useful thing it provides important information on how you have progressed in many areas of your education and development too often, schools like to hang your record over your head like a threat or a punishment: the famous "that's going to go in your record" line. Some schools even try to put irrelevant but extremely personal information about you in your record, such as your political or religous beliefs and practices. New Hampshire is one of the few states that prohibits schools from keeping records on student political activity.

Can I view my own student records?

Thanks to the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (known as the Buckley amendment), schools that receive any federal funding must make student records available for viewing by parents and the students themselves if they are 18 or older. (When I say "parent" I of course also mean legal guardian.) In some states the age is less than 18: in Delaware, it's 14, and in Massachusetts it's 14, or ninth grade.

However, there is some information students can't access at all, such as psychiatric reports and other non-educational records possessed by a counselor, doctor, social worker or the like. Your parents can see these files, though.

If you are over 18, you can designate a physician or other professional to have access to your records. And your parents can request in writing that your records be released to someone else: a lawyer, relative, counselor or friend, for example. Finally, schools must respond to your request to view records within 45 days, and they may charge a reasonable fee for the copying costs.

Who else can access my records?

Lots of other people may want to see your student records: other teachers, social workers, employers and the police, among others. The level of protection your records have from outsiders varies from state to state. Generally, schools have the right to release information to teachers and school officials who have a 'legitimate educational interest' in your records if you're transfering to a new school, for example.

If your school is subpeonaed by a court order, it must try to notify your parents first before releasing your records. And in some states, only school superintendents are allowed to release this information. The only time a school is allowed to release your records without getting your parents' permission is in emergency situations where the information is necessary to protect your health and safety, or that of other students.

Sometimes a school will release student information for directories: your name, address, telephone number and academic major and other such personal information but your parents can request that you be left off such lists.

What if any entry in my records is wrong?

While much of the information in student records is quantitative stuff, like your score on a standardized test, a great deal of it may be totally subjective such as what an educator thinks about your development or behavior. And some of it may even be totally unrelated to your academic and developmental growth and unflattering, embarrassing or even harmful to have in your official records. Educators can be just as biased as anyone else.

If there is information you or your parents consider to be inaccurate, irrelevant or unfair, there are ways to try to get it changed or deleted. You and your parents have the right to meet with school officials to request any part of your records be changed. If they refuse to do so, you have the right to a formal hearing before an impartial third party where you can tell your side of the story.
Even if the decision is not to change the record, you and your parents have the right to place a statement in the record saying you find the entry inaccurate or unfair. This becomes a permanent attachment to the record, and must be released along with any future requests for the record itself. Some states give students and parents more opportunities to contest student record entries than others check with your local ACLU to find out the law in your state.

Of course, the more active interest you and your parents take in the accuracy of your student records, the less likely it is that your school will be inaccurate or sloppy in its record keeping. And your parents should NEVER sign any blanket authorization to the school permitting it to release your information at its discretion. That can leave the door wide open for abuse of your privacy.

What other information about me is out there?

Because we live in an information society, chances are lots of other organizations and entities have data on you: from insurance companies, banks and credit companies, to clubs you're in or once belonged to, and federal agencies like the IRS and others. Under the 1974 Freedom of Information Act, all people in the United States have the right to access a wide variety of information compiled by government agencies, and under the Privacy Act of 1974, you can obtain copies of files about yourself compiled by government agencies. The ACLU of Oregon has a useful step-by-step guide to filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act which you can find here.