FERPA & Student Records Privacy FAQs

FERPA & Student Records Privacy FAQs

Q: Is it legal for me to e-mail my class about class assignments and other work?

A:  Yes, the use of registered students' PSU e-mail addresses is acceptable for academic and educational purposes even if the student has elected confidentiality. If you plan to make electronic communication a part of class requirements, be sure to include that information in the course syllabus that every student receives. Students who do not want to use e-mail for their class work need to be aware of the requirement so that they can adjust their schedule accordingly or make appropriate accommodation. In some cases, instructors find it useful to set up a listserv for their class that masks individually identifiable email addresses. Information about setting up a listserv may be found on the Office of Information Technologies online support site.

Q: Doesn't it violate FERPA if I include confidential students (students who have established confidentiality of their records) in a mass e-mail to all of my students?

A:   No. According to recent clarifications, electing the confidentiality option does not include a right to remain anonymous in class and may not be used to impede routine classroom communications and interactions, whether class is held on campus or online. When you send e-mail to a list of students, using their individual email addresses in the "To:" line everyone can see all of the members on the list. FERPA allows you to share the PSU email of students registered in your class, amongst class members.

If it is not important to you that the students in class know each others e-mail you may want to exclude confidential students from the list. After excluding them from the group list, you may send an individual e-mail, with the same content, addressed only to the confidential student. If you have more than one confidential student, you can send an individual e-mail to each one of them, separately. An alternative method is to include the confidential emails via blind copy ("bcc:").

Q: May I post grades?

A: You may post grades as long as only you and the individual student knows who the grade is for. That is, you cannot use the students' names or their Student ID numbers. You can create a unique identifier (such as a number, NOT part of the Student ID number) for each of your students and post grades by that identifier. Be sure NOT to arrange the list in alphabetical order, even though the names are not printed. (NOTE: Do not pass a sign-up sheet around the class asking students to write down their unique identifier. All of the students who see the list will have access to the identifiers of other students.)

Q: May I distribute students' graded exams and papers by putting them in a self-serve box so that students can easily pick up their papers?

A: NO. Distributing students' exams and papers in this way violates their confidentiality by making protected records available to the public. This is not an acceptable practice.

Q: What information may I give to parents who want to know how their student is doing -- what the grade is in a particular class, or what the overall GPA is? What if the parents say they know their student got a D- and want to know what can be done?

A: You cannot discuss any specifics about the student's grades. Use a conditional response: "If a student in my class earned a D-, I would suggest" You also can advise the parent on how the student can access grades via banweb (online student information system) or by requesting a transcript. Remember to first check for records confidentiality before talking with parents or family members. If the student's record is CONFIDENTIAL, you must respond to the inquiry in a way that does not acknowledge the student's existence on campus.

Q: What information may I give if the student is a dependent and the parent can prove it with tax records?

A: While federal law authorizes the release of records to parents of dependent students, it does not require it. The Oregon public records law however, prohibits release of non-directory information to parents of dependent students. Unless written permission is obtained from the student, non-directory information may not be released to parents of dependent or independent students.

Q: What information may be given if the student is no longer enrolled?

A: Only the same information as if the person were still enrolled as a student. Be sure to check whether the student had imposed confidentiality before leaving the university; if so, the confidentiality remains in effect.

Q: What information may be given if the student is deceased?

A: When a student dies, FERPA no longer applies, but since there may be other issues related to disclosure, the inquiry should be referred to the Office of the Registrar.

Q: What if the caller is the Portland police, the FBI, Homeland Security, or a representative of a government agency?

A: A student's permission is required to release their records to these representatives, except in cases of emergency. Refer the caller to the Office of the Registrar.

Q: What if the Portland police, the FBI, or a representative of a government agency only want the student's class schedule?

A: Class schedules are not directory information and may not be released. FERPA restrictions apply equally to law enforcement officials. Do not release the class schedule; refer the caller to the Office of the Registrar.

Q: What if the FBI or federal agent says she needs information about a student under the new anti-terrorism legislation?

A: The USA PATRIOT Act (2001) and other legislation specify guidelines for release of information. Refer all such inquiries to the Office of the Registrar to ensure appropriate compliance.

Q: What information about a student may I include in a letter of recommendation or in a job reference via telephone?

A: Dates of employment or statements made based on personal observation or knowledge do not require a written release from the student. For example, without referencing her student record you might say, "She was very involved in departmental activities, she was congenial and well-liked, and passionate about the field of study." You also may include information provided to you by the student, such as information from his/her resume.

However, inclusion of specific information obtained from a student's education record (grades, GPA, etc.) requires a signed release from the student that (1) specifies the records that may be disclosed, (2) states the purpose of the disclosure, and (3) identifies the party or class of parties to whom the disclosure can be made. Download the Student Consent for Letters of Recommendation form.

For example, without a signed release you cannot say, "She was the only student to earn 100 on my final exam, and she has a 4.0 GPA."

Q: Do students have the right to read letters of recommendation that I write on their behalf?

A: If you keep a copy of the letter on file, it is considered part of the student's education record and the student has the right to read it unless he or she has waived the right of access. Download the Student Consent for Letters of Recommendation form.

Q: Do students have the right to read letters of recommendation submitted as part of their admission process or scholarship/award application?

A: Students have the right of access to letters of recommendation that reside in their application files unless they have signed a voluntary waiver of these rights. Departments receiving letters of recommendation for program admission, scholarships, or awards that do not want to release letters written in confidence about students should: a) retain the waiver of access in the student's file along with the letter or, b) in the absence of a waiver, return the confidential letter to the writer, or request that the writer resubmit the letter under the condition that it may be released to the student. NOTE: All access waivers and revocation of waivers must be received in writing and be dated and signed by the student. Download the Student Consent for Letters of Recommendation form.

Q: Are the employment records of student employees considered protected education records?

A: This depends on the answer to one question: is the employee required to have student status to be eligible for the job? If NO, as in the case of regular university employees, who may or may not be students taking classes, the answer is NO. Employment records (i.e. performance evaluations, attendance, salary and other HR types of records) which relate exclusively to individuals in their capacity as employees are not considered to be education records and thus are not subject to FERPA rules and regulations. If YES, as in the case of work study students, regular wage student employees, or graduate assistants, then the answer is YES, their employment records are considered education records. Records of individuals in attendance at an institution who are employed as a result of their status as students are education records, and are subject to the full protection of FERPA.

Q: May I give a job reference or letter of recommendation for a student employee whose employment records are considered education records?

A: Yes you may, as long as you remember that such things as performance evaluations, records of attendance, salary information, and other HR records are protected information and cannot be released without written consent from the student. You may however, provide dates of employment and information based on your personal observation and knowledge without a written release. For example, without referencing the student's employment record you might say, "She was reliable and well-liked, and always had a positive attitude." Without a written release you cannot say, "Her last performance rating was 'needs improvement', and she had 20 unexcused absences."

It is recognized that the line distinguishing protected employment records from information based on personal observation and knowledge can be blurry. For that reason, it is recommended that you ask all student employees who ask you for a job reference or letter of recommendation to sign a written consent allowing you to release all information related to their employment and job performance. Download the Student Consent for Letters of Recommendation form.

Q: The student organization that I advise wants to invite all students declaring "X" ethnicity to their meeting. May they get a list of all "X" ethnicity students along with their addresses?

A: Although ethnicity is not directory information, and thus cannot be released generally to members of student groups, we may release the information to a Portland State faculty/staff sponsor of the group. The sponsoring faculty/staff member is responsible for ensuring that the information is used correctly for the limited purposes described, that it is protected from unauthorized release, and that it is eventually destroyed in a secure manner after it has been used. Under supervision of the sponsoring faculty/staff member, students may have access to the data to complete the tasks related to the described purpose. It is important that the sponsor educate each student working with the data about the requirements to protect the information and keep it private.

Q: What if someone requests a list of all of the students from "X" country?

A: Refer all such requests to the Office of the Registrar.

Q: A student in my class is at home ill, so her sister stopped by to pick up her recently graded mid-term exam.  Is it OK to give it to her so that she may deliver it to my student?

A: NO.  The mid-term exam and grade is not directory information and may not be released to anyone but the student.

Q: A community organization that I belong to wants to sell exam week care packets to parents; our organization will then deliver them to the students. May we get a list of parents' names and addresses?

A: NO. Parents' names and addresses are not directory information and may not be released.