University of Iowa halts practice of sending student information to sheriff

Concerns raised on whether college was violating federal privacy rules

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa has halted for now its practice of sending to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department information about students who apply for gun permits, after questions about whether that process violates student privacy laws.

UI officials Thursday said they would halt the practice indefinitely while they consult with the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

But UI officials also stressed they believe a waiver signed by gun permit applicants covers the release of such university information to the Johnson County sheriff’s department.

“That’s the part where we’re reaching out to the Department of Education to get some guidance and interpretation,” said Nathan Levin, UI deputy counsel. “We feel that signed release was broad enough. It would encompass, just as it says, any and all records.”

The university has been providing to the sheriff’s department information about students, faculty and staff who apply for gun permits for quite some time. It likely started just after a UI campus shooting in 1991, when a gunman shot six people, five of them fatally, said Mark Braun, chief of staff for UI President Sally Mason.

It’s unknown if the practice started at the suggestion of the sheriff’s office or the university.

“We don’t have records dating back that far, but those involved recall that’s when it started,” Levin said. “We thought that in order to cooperate with law enforcement on this process, we’d provide as much information as we could.”

Eric Tabor, chief of staff for the Iowa Attorney General, said no one in that office could recall the UI ever asking them for advice on whether to share student information with the sheriff’s department.

Privacy violation?

Schools that fail to protect student privacy can lose federal funding, but the U.S. Department of Education reported Thursday that has never happened since FERPA was enacted in 1974. If a determination is made that a school has failed to comply with FERPA, the school and the complainant are advised and the school is informed of the steps it must take to come into compliance, department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said in an email.

The department receives hundreds of complaints a year from students and parents alleging violations to FERPA, Bradshaw said, though the department did not have statistics Thursday about the number of complaints that results in confirmed violations.

“We did, however, confirm that we do not have a record of having investigated a FERPA complaint filed against the University of Iowa,” Bradshaw said.

FERPA gives parents rights to their K-12 students’ educational records, and those rights transfer to students when they turn 18 or attend college. At the college level, students must provide written permission for schools to release education records, though there are exceptions, such as sharing information with another school when a student transfers.

Virginia Tech officials were criticized in 2007 for not sharing information about the mental health history of a student who fatally shot 32 people and wounded 17 others on campus. A federal report on the massacre showed educators, mental-health providers and police often don’t share information for fear of violating overlapping privacy laws, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

UI officials said they view their actions in this situation as a balance.

“We want to make sure that we balance safety with student privacy,” Braun said.

A Des Moines Register investigation published Thursday brought the UI practice to light, which “obviously has created some questions for us with regard to providing information,” Braun said. The practice of providing information about faculty and staff who apply for gun permits will not be halted.

Permit waivers

UI officials also never saw copies of the signed waivers from the sheriff’s department before providing information about applicants.

“We would have no reason to assume that the sheriff’s office would be sending us names without a signed waiver,” Braun said, but he added that issue is “definitely going to be part of our conversation.”

The gun permit waiver applicants sign does not specify educational records might be released, but it authorizes review and full disclosure of “all records concerning myself ... whether the said records are of a public, private or confidential nature.” The waiver does specifically mention records of psychiatric treatment, substance abuse treatment and involuntary committal.

The type of information released about students, was “along the lines of a summary of the student’s status,” Levin said, with information about how they doing in class or personally or observations from academic counselors.

How much information was provided varied from student to student, he said, adding that if red flags were raised, more information was given.

The sheriff’s department checked gun permit applicants against the UI directory, then forwarded on names to the university requesting information. On the UI end, it often involved the UI police, dean of students office and academic counselors, who provided information and observations about a student’s performance or internal discipline issues, Levin said.Gazette reporter Erin Jordan contributed to this story

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