News: A Time to Tell

UC grapples with federal legislation that requires parental notification of students' run-ins with the law

Mar 4, 1999 at 2:06 pm
UC spokesman Greg Hand says Congress, with the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, has created gray areas for universities trying to decide when parents should be called.

A 19-year-old University of Cincinnati student was arrested on campus, between Calhoun Street and Corry Boulevard, for being in possession of and purchasing illegal drugs.

According to the Cincinnati Police Division Arrest and Investigation Report, the student was arrested Feb. 24 for buying ecstasy capsules — a mixture of heroin and other hallucinogens. She also was charged for being in possession of LSD and marijuana at the time of the arrest.

Because of a new federal regulation, it's probably time for the university to call the student's parents.

"My gut feeling is that this one would fit into the notification clause," said Greg Hand, UC spokesman. "(The arrest) appears to be on campus involving a student and in the right age group."

Under a new clause in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, colleges and universities now have the authority to notify parents of students under the age of 21 when they are either charged with a crime or brought up on disciplinary actions for drug or alcohol abuse.

But the vaguely worded permission to notify parents of student misconduct leaves a lot of open-ended questions about the university's responsibility and student rights.

The Feb. 24 arrest of a student offers a scenario that's a little more clear-cut, Hand said.

"But what if another student was arrested for the same thing but it happened off-campus?," Hand said.

"Do you penalize the one student and not the other?"

The clause in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, which was passed by Congress a few months ago, allows for greater confusion about the university's role and what is legal and appropriate to do, Hand said.

"If you notify parents, how do you do it fairly?" Hand asked. "Do you include students off-campus as well as on campus? And if you include students off-campus, is it only in a certain zip code?"

Some students think that the parent notification clause is a good idea.

"I'm with it," said Ronnie Bass, a senior at UC and member of the Program Advisory Council. "Basically, 90 percent of students are supported by their parents. Parents have a right to know what their children are doing."

Bass said that it was a good safety measure that could keep students from getting into to trouble.

"They get away from home, and they go crazy," he said. "This way, maybe they won't go so crazy."

But universities and colleges are seeing the clause as a circle back to having more responsibility for its students and their actions that such institutions have had in the past.

"The pendulum (of the university's responsibility) swings back and forth over a couple of decades," Hand said.

In the 1960s, the pendulum was swinging toward a legal concept called in loco parentis. This concept allowed universities to act as the students' parents and closely dictate student activities on and off-campus, Hand said.

"But during the 1970s, the courts threw it out and essentially limited what a university could say," Hand said.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 was intended to guarantee students the right of access to their education records and to protect them from inappropriate release of those records. This also included the student disciplinary records, Hand said.

Universities and colleges that do not comply with FERPA regulations could have federal funds taken away. Hand said that UC gets a sixth of its funding from federal grants.

"During the 1980s, a different trend arose to limit universities even more," he said. "This trend affected things like fraternities and sororities off-campus where liability suits were on the rise for universities."

Hand said that during this time, universities were learning that the more authority they had over off-campus organizations, the more they would be held liable for other situations involving students off-campus.

"There was a lot of pressure not to be involved with things happening off-campus," he said.

Now Congress, which attempted to make the regulatory burden easier on universities, has created muddled gray areas for universities by increasing reporting requirements, Hand said.

Last March, Virginia's Attorney General Mark Earley commissioned a task force to look at the effects of drinking and the violation of alcohol laws on college campuses in Virginia. In its findings, the task force urged that there should be a cooperative effort between communities, colleges, students and parents.

This task force recommendation resulted in the notification clause in the reauthorization act.

What this means is that nationwide, colleges and universities must come up with a plan of action to take because of this new authority.

Hand said that universities all over the nation are coming up with ways to deal with the vague set of guidelines.

"How do you comply and still remain fair?" Hand asked.

If a university contacts a parent, then there is a possibility that the student can sue the school for violating privacy. If the school does not notify a parent, and the adult student is injured or worse because of alcohol or drugs, then perhaps the parent can sue the university.

In addition to these potential situations putting the university between a rock and a hard place, Hand also said that age was a factor.

Any student that is 18 or older is legally considered an adult. But as long as they are a full-time student, they can be declared dependent for tax reasons until they are 25 years old. So at what age does a university stop parent notification?

This becomes even more difficult for a school like UC where a large percentage of the population is older students commuting in from surrounding areas.

"We are looking at all the factors," Hand said. "We are starting to look at all the situations and all the areas. I expect we should have something soon."

Hand said that a final plan on how to deal with parent notification is expected in two weeks.

All students will be notified of the final decision, he said. ©