In a visually arresting multi-part series, the Boston Globe looks at the hazardous conditions in off-campus student housing, where cash-strapped students cram into firetraps never meant to hold eight, 10 or 12 occupants. Overcrowding has been faulted for at least one recent fatal fire and several near-misses, despite a city ordinance that limits occupancy to no more than four unrelated people per home.
A spokesman for Boston College expressed dismay when told how many students are packed into the neighborhood’s aging homes, but said BC can’t do anything about it. Even though the college has a database showing where its students are living, BC claims it can’t share that information with city code enforcers because of federal student privacy laws.
Source: The Boston Globe, "Shadow Campus" (May 5, 2014)
Former Executive Director Frank LoMonte: Let’s go ahead and assume for laughs that Boston College is correct – and (spoiler alert!) they’re not – that releasing college students’ home addresses is a violation of FERPA, which (if you get caught) carries the worst-case downside of a nasty warning letter from the U.S. Department of Education.
If you thought it would spare one of your students from a horrible fiery end, wouldn’t you maybe suck it up and take that risk?
Because, since the Department of Education has never penalized anybody for violating FERPA, would they reeeally want to start after 40 years of inaction by making an example out of the school that’s trying to save kids from burning to death?
Nonetheless, taking no chances that they might be the first college in four-going-on-five decades to get scolded (heavens!) by the DOE, the good folks at Boston College have decided to play it safe. “Safe,” except for the people who might get bitten by rats or crippled jumping from burning buildings.
(That BC’s Jack Dunn actually answered the Globe’s question with “FERPA” tells you how reflexively college spokespeople grab for “the FERPA answer” no matter what the question is. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of college spokesmanship, except that Swiss Army Knives occasionally are the right tool for the job. Let’s hope Mrs. Dunn never asks Jack if he’s glad they got married.)
In point of fact, nothing in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits Boston College from giving the City of Boston access to its database of student addresses so inspectors can see whether students are quadrupling-up inside houses that can’t safely hold them.
The FERPA statute says colleges can designate basic identifying facts, including name and mailing address, as “directory information.” Once something is directory information, then by definition it’s not confidential under FERPA and (except for the rare student who signs an opt-out form), can freely be disclosed.
Boston College might’ve had any number of legitimate responses when the Globe asked why BC doesn’t rat out its students to the city housing department. FERPA confidentiality wasn’t one of them.
We rate this: Not protected by FERPA at all