Va. bill aims to exempt university threat assessment teams from state's FOIA laws

VIRGINIA — A bill proposed by Virginia Delegate Rob Bell,R-Charlottesville, passed in a House sub-committee with a unanimous 9-0 votelast week. House Bill 903 proposes to amend the state’s Freedom ofInformation laws, allowing threat assessment teams at public colleges anduniversities to meet confidentially and then seal the records. Thesethreat assessment teams, Bell said, are assembled when a student is, for variousreasons, deemed seriously troubled. The conversations conducted during thesemeetings need to be private from the media, he said, which is an issue with thecurrent Freedom of Information (FOIA) laws. The teams, he added, are to helpinsure there will not be another incident like the Virginia Tech shootings inApril 2007.

Bell said the appropriate professionals, like doctors, law enforcementofficers and school administrators, need the ability to discuss astudent’s records that may contain “crucial” information, butwhich are currently confidential because of medical and education privacy lawslike the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) andthe Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). These laws may preventmany of the necessary professionals, like doctors, from disclosing confidentialinformation about the subject of the threat assessment, Bell said.

Before the hearing, The Virginia Press Association submitted suggestions toclarify the bill and to add certain caveats to sealing the records. It suggestedthat in the event there is an incident involving a subject of a threatassessment, the records need to be made public, the executive director of theVirginia Press Association, Ginger Stanley, said.

“We want to make sure that if an event occurs that we can look atthe records to see what the assessment team knew, and when they knew it and whatthey did about it, if anything,” Stanley said.

Stanley said an “event” is considered to be “an actcausing a death or serious bodily harm,” or “any sexual assaultchargeable as a felony.”

The VPA also wants to ensure this bill will not retroactively seal anyrecords that are currently public, Stanley said. The association’s mainobjective, however, is to ensure the bill does not “prevent the release ofany record relating to the assessment of any individual in the event suchindividual commits an act causing one of these serious events,” Stanleysaid.

If it is passed through both the Virginia House of Representatives andSenate, the bill would face a final review by the state’s Attorney Generalto ensure none of the existing privacy laws are being violated, Bell said.

“One of the lessons of Tech was … all the individual pieces of thepuzzle were there, but they were never put into one place where somebody couldsee the whole picture,” Bell said.

Bell added that students coming forward with information about a peer needto have “confidence in the confidentiality of thisprocess.”Though the delegates heard from various groups like theVPA with suggestions of how to modify the bill, it passed through thesub-committee “as written,” Bell said.

“We were allowed ample time to present our case…and the committeewas not inclined to listen to our suggested amendments. So the work that we willneed to do now is on the Senate side,” Stanley said.She addedthat the VPA will follow this bill to the Senate, continuing to makesuggestions.

“We will continue to voice our concerns,” she said.