As parents, we worry about our children when they head off to college. No matter how much we trust them, and respect them, and know in our minds that they will be fine, we are concerned about them. In some cases, we may be especially worried, or we may not completely trust them, because of a history of unwise behavior or questionable habits in high school. In either case, we worry because our children are not only away from us and on their own, possibly for the first time, but we also worry because we may not know when they are in trouble.
In 1974, Congress passed the Buckley Amendment, commonly referred to as the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which gave parents certain rights to their child’s educational records. When a student turns eighteen, those rights transfer to the student, which means that information goes directly to the student, rather than the parents. Congress revised the law in 1998 and further clarified it in 2000, to allow (but not require) institutions to notify parents if students under the age of twenty-one violate campus alcohol or drug policies.
One of the first things that you can do as a parent is to be clear about the notification policy at your student’s institution. You may ask about the policy on an admissions visit. The information may be available on the college website. You may need to call a Dean of Students or Parent Relations Office to find the answer. Be clear about the policy. Don’t assume that all is well with your student because you haven’t heard anything if you find that your student’s school has a no notification policy.
What is the rationale behind Parental Notification?
Supporters of Parental Notification argue that the policy of engaging parents as partners in the health and safety of their students will allow parents to become involved in problems regarding alcohol or drugs before serious trouble occurs. Parental Notification is seen as a proactive step on the part of the college to increase the support and involvement of parents. Some schools find that this partnership with parents may allow staff to gain important information about the student that may help them respond to student difficulties. For some students, simply knowing that their parents may be notified if they are in trouble will act as a deterrent.
What do most schools do?
Each school has the ability to decide its own Parental Notification policy. It is important to remember the phrase in the FERPA law which says that colleges are not required to notify parents of a student’s problems. It is also important to remember that this exception to FERPA applies only to alcohol and drug policies or to life threatening situations.
There is a wide range in school policies. Some schools may notify parents of any infraction of a school’s alcohol or drug policy. Some schools may notify parents only of second or third offences. Some schools may allow the student an avenue of appeal before parents are notified. Some schools may notify parents only in cases of concern for a student’s health or safety.
Many schools struggle to find the appropriate balance between notification and parental involvement and respect for the privacy of the student and the student’s development of independence and emerging adulthood. Some schools will notify parents only in “extraordinary circumstances”. Some schools have notification policies but do not act on them often. Some schools will not inform students that parents are being notified, and some schools will give a student an opportunity to talk to his parents before they are notified.
One survey, conducted in 2000 by Bowling Green State University and the Association for Student Judicial Affairs Model Policy Committee, gathered information from 189 schools about their policies. At that time more than 59% had Parental Notification policies, 25% were considering instituting policies. Only 16% did not have policies and were not considering policies. The same survey found that 79% of parents were either very supportive or supportive of such policies. (At this point, these numbers have surely changed. We expect that the number of schools with policies has increased.)
As of June 2008, the state of Tennessee is the only state that requires schools to have a Parental Notification policy. Several other states are considering such policies.
Does Parental Notification work?
Preliminary findings from the study mentioned earlier suggest that having a Parental Notification policy in place tends to reduce repeat violations of alcohol and drug policies by students. Other studies have suggested that students of more involved parents are more likely to make safer choices. Therefore some schools attempt to give parents the opportunity to be involved. The reality is that many parents are often shocked to hear that their student has been involved in a school policy violation.
Parental Notification, as a stand alone policy, is limited in its effectiveness. It is not a quick fix, but must be one part of a comprehensive plan for addressing alcohol and drug use on campus. Parental Notification must be seen as one part of a total alcohol and drug misuse prevention program. Investigate what programs are available at your student’s school. Try to understand not only the school’s policies about drugs and alcohol, but the schools attitude about drugs and alcohol use on campus. How does your student’s school look at the bigger picture?
Helping your college student succeed and thrive at college is a three-way partnership. Your student is the primary actor. The college and parents play supporting roles. Many colleges have chosen to involve parents by notifying them of alcohol or drug related issues, but have also taken an active role in educating students about healthy choices. As parents, you may use notification as an opportunity to open doors of communication with your student. It is important to remember, however, that your student will need to make his own choices – and bear the responsibilities for any consequences.