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Universities are now allowed to contact parents without a student's consent in cases where a student's health or safety is threatened, according to new regulations from the U.S. Department of Education. These changes amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the disclosure of student records.

The original FERPA rules prompted some confusion among higher education administrators after the April 2007 mass-shootings at Virginia Tech, in which a student killed 32 people and himself. In the investigation afterwards, federal officials found that faculty had been concerned about the student's mental health and behavior prior to the shootings but felt constricted by FERPA from speaking with his parents. These new regulations clarify that colleges may share information with students' parents in many circumstances, the department noted.

"These changes and clarifications will help school officials respond to emergencies more quickly and effectively," said former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. "The regulations balance student privacy with school safety while facilitating research to ultimately improve education."

The updated rules also permit schools to share education records—which include student health information if a student receives on-campus health services—about students who transfer.

Psychology students should get acquainted with FERPA—as well as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and their state privacy laws—for their own protection, but also to understand the restrictions they'll face as future health-care providers, says Louise A. Douce, PhD, director of counseling and consultation services at Ohio State University.

"Legal and ethical considerations about confidentiality and the health and safety of our clients are complicated, and it's part of our responsibility to be familiar with them," Douce says. More about the new FERPA guidelines can be found at www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/index.html.

—A. Novotney