Government uses anti-terrorism law to press colleges for student records

WASHINGTON, D.C. ‘ The U.S.A. Patriot Act, a comprehensive anti-terrorism bill spurred by the events of Sept. 11, includes a newly revised section granting the government easier access to student records.

Colleges grabbed national attention when it was learned that at least one of the 19 suspected hijackers responsible for the attacks came to the United States on a student visa.

In the bill’s original form, federal officials would have been allowed to examine personal records of students with little or no evidence that linked them to terrorism. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups objected to the measure, claiming it would single out students of Arab descent, allowing officials free reign to their personal files.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, prevents colleges and universities from releasing personal information about enrolled students without their written permission. The law includes an exemption for a ‘health or safety emergency,’ the clause many U.S. officials have used to probe the records of 220 colleges and universities to date.

The act, signed by President Bush in November, allows federal employees at the level of assistant attorney general or above to request the student records. Officials must gain a court’s certification stating the government’s intent to obtain the personal records.

Agents from the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service, in addition to obtaining records, have asked for the names of thousands of students across the nation.

Indiana University alone has provided more than 3,200 names to aid in the investigation. The names were determined by students’ enrollment in English-as-a-second-language courses. Other universities have been asked for the names of those enrolled in flight classes.

The attitude has been quite different at Eastern Michigan University, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where campus police have declined to help federal investigators.

College officials and higher-education lobbyists have expressed concerns that the new measures will prevent foreign students from enrolling in American colleges.