WASHINGTON, D.C. ‘ Debbie Shick was given a choice. After her son’s death in 1999 following a fight with another student near his Georgetown University campus, school officials told Shick she would have to sign a confidentiality agreement preventing her from telling David’s siblings the outcome of the disciplinary hearing against the student she believed was responsible for her son’s death. If she refused, the university would not tell her the outcome. Shick and her husband refused to sign.
Until recently, the outcomes of student disciplinary hearings at Georgetown University were confidential. The only people aware of them were members of the hearing board and students directly involved who signed an agreement waiving their right to discuss the outcome.
This fall, the university approved two changes to its confidentiality agreement. One will allow students to tell their parents the result of the hearing, as long as those individuals do not disclose the information. The other will allow for periodic publishing of the number of cases handled by the campus hearing board and the sanctions imposed.
The updated agreement also stipulates a new punishment for those who violate the policy.
‘If a student fails to maintain the confidentiality of the information, he or she may be held accountable under [university policies] for violation of confidentiality and may be subject to appropriate disciplinary action,’ reads the agreement.
After David Shick’s death, questions were raised concerning the validity of Georgetown’s confidentiality agreement. The university defended its policy by citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, claiming the results of disciplinary hearings are part of a student’s record and therefore cannot be released.
‘Protecting the confidentiality of student information not only is intrinsic to the educational mission of Georgetown’s student disciplinary system, but also is required by federal law,’ the agreement states.
FERPA allows colleges to disclose the outcomes of disciplinary hearings when a student is found responsible for behavior that would constitute a violent crime. Even though FERPA allows disclosure of some disciplinary records, it does not require it. Georgetown’s policy is to release nothing to the public.
‘I find this to be morally reprehensible, cowardly, and based more on protecting their own bottom line than any student interests, but it is legal,’ said Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, a campus crime watchdog group. ‘We asked them to release the records for the greater good, even if it did violate their own rules.’
While Shick and her husband eventually received the information they were seeking, they said other families should be given the same access. Shick plans to work toward changing Georgetown’s policy.