FSU Student Privacy Not Fully Protected

Your personal information may not be as private as you think.

Framingham State University offers many privacy policies which promise confidentiality of personal information, but in many cases, loopholes which may breach a student’s privacy do exist.

Many FSU students have heard the horror stories of students developing an embarrassing medical diagnosis and somehow getting this information sent to his or her parents.  With the Health Center’s required privacy policy, this should not be plausible, but it is.

In regards to the health center, FSU Dean of Students Melinda Stoops said, “Our Health Center follows both HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and state laws with regard to patient confidentiality.  They would not release information, without permission, unless it is an emergency situation.”

HIPAA is a federal law, enacted in 1996, which among other provisions, promises privacy to individuals covered under health insurance.

While HIPAA should keep student information private, there are still ways in which a student’s health information can be exposed without his or her permission, many of which are clearly stated in the FSU Health Center’s Notice of Privacy Practices.

The five-page document begins by ensuring that students’ personal information is confidential and protected, but a few pages in, there is a page titled, “How We May Use or Disclose Your Personal Health Information,” with a list of instances in which students’ information might be released without their permission.

While most are very rare instances, there is one exception that affects many students campus-wide.

FSU’s Health Center Director Ilene Hofrenning said, “If the student is on their parents’ health insurance, the insurance company may send an EOB (estimation of benefits) home, or if there is a copay or deductible, a bill may go home.”

These EOBs and bills show a list of the treatments given, which gives parents direct knowledge of the illnesses their children contract.

The majority of students on campus are enrolled under their parents’ health insurance.

Hofrenning said, “This problem has gotten worse in the last few years since more and more insurance plans have deductibles, so it’s usually an issue earlier in the year when the deductibles kick in.”

Senior Brianna Tarantino said, “I feel like it’s hard because they’re on their [parents’] health insurance, so I don’t know how you can get around that, but I feel like they should look into a way they can get around that just so they have the full privacy, especially since college is 18 and over, so your parents shouldn’t have to know.”

Freshman Layla Soares suggested, “If they know the student is on campus, they might as well send it to the dorm or something, or add it to the [tuition] bill,” so a student’s private health matters are not exposed.

Hofrenning said the healthcare staff always “discuss with students and have signs saying a bill may be going home in the waiting room and in the exam rooms.  We know for a fact that this deters students from getting needed health care.”

She added, “We have had an outside agency, JRI/Project Rise, do free, confidential HIV testing on campus once or twice a year.  The last couple of times they’ve been here, they’ve done chlamydia and gonorrhea testing as well.  We were surprised at the number of students who wanted this testing, and they all said it was because they were afraid a bill would go home if they had it done through the Health Center.”

The privacy policy is 11 years old, which shows that there has been a lack of attention to the issue of student privacy for years.

In regards to finding solutions to this issue, Hofrenning said, “Unfortunately, the issue goes beyond us.  Since a vendor, usually the lab, wants to get paid, they will send the bill to the responsible party. …We have negotiated a lower price for lab tests if the student pays out of pocket rather than going through the insurance company, so students could opt to pay it themselves. …There is a statewide group that is working on a statewide policy, and possibly legislation to protect students’ privacy.”

Senior Patrick Merrill is appalled by this issue, calling it a complete invasion of privacy.

“The point of college is to grow, not only in education, but in life,” Merrill said. “Every single person has made mistakes in life. It is up to them to learn and grow from them. Having your parents hear every little detail is not going to allow the student to grow. If a student has enough power to drop out without parental permission, then they should have the power to keep their records sealed.”

In regards to other aspects of privacy on campus, students are mostly protected.

“Student records are protected under federal law (FERPA),” said FSU Dean of Students Melinda Stoops. “In addition, it is important for students to know that we respect their privacy and will safeguard that to the extent possible and appropriate.”

Student records include grades, student conduct records and advising records, among others.

FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Acts) is a federal law that protects the privacy of all of a student’s academic records and applies to all schools funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It gives students complete ownership of their own records and promises that these records will not be shared with any other party.

This means that parents will not receive access to grades without a student’s permission, and they are not notified if a student is failing or suspended. They will also not be notified about student judicial or legal issues.

“There are times when a parent wants information and is told that we can’t disclose that information. However, we do try and explain the reasons for it and give them some general information that might be helpful to them,” said Stoops.

Hofrenning encounters the same issue in the health center.

“As soon as the child is 18, no information can be given to parents without the student’s permission – this is often very confusing for parents,” she said. “Sometimes, parents have become very upset with us when we will not disclose information. … Sometimes, we try to be proactive about it and ask, if a student has been seen by us for something serious, what information the student would like released to parents if they call.”

Susanne Conley, vice president of enrollment and student development said, “The only exception under FERPA with respect to outside notification relates to situations in which university officials have reason to believe that a student’s health or safety is at risk or if the student poses a risk to others.”

Stoops added some of these instances include “when we are significantly worried about a student’s physical or emotional well-being, if a student is identified as missing, if they are under 21 and violate our alcohol or drug policy, if a student is hospitalized.”

Students worried about a specific incident being reported to their parents can request that this information be withheld from release through the Student Conduct Office, but there has to be a legitimate reason for the request.

While FSU has the obligation to protect private student affairs, much of the protection is the responsibility of the student.

“Students should know their right to privacy under FERPA as college students,” Conley said.

The management of personal affairs in college is a challenge for many students who are transitioning from complete dependency to adulthood.

“I can point to a student and say, ‘Yes that person’s information should be private – they really have their life together,’ but I can point to another student of the same age and say, ‘No their information shouldn’t be withheld from their parents. They need help keeping their life on track,’” said senior Trevor Gorman. “Finding that line between being a self-sustaining adult and being dependent on your parents is hard, and personally, I’m not sure we ever truly stop being dependent on our parents,” he said.

Dean Stoops said, “We encourage students to be responsible for themselves, including academic progress, health and safety.  Students enter college at different levels in terms of their ability to do this and we try and assist them in developing additional skills of independence.”

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