School records often include a lot of sensitive information about students—and even their families. As a parent or guardian, you might be concerned about what’s in your child’s record, who can see it, and whether you can do anything to change it.
What’s in a Student’s School Record?
School records typically include:
- “directory information” about the student (name, address, phone number, and other information that typically appears in school yearbooks)
- additional, more personal identifying information, including the student’s birth date and social security number
- the parents’ or guardians’ names and contact information
- courses taken, attendance records, grades, awards and honors, degrees earned, and other academic information
- scores on standardized tests
- disciplinary actions taken against the student, such as suspensions or expulsions, and the reasons for those actions
- medical and health records that the school creates or collects (including immunization records and medication administered at school)
- special education records, including individualized education programs (EIPs), and
- participation in academic and other school activities, such as sports or student government.
Who Can See School Records?
The privacy of school records is protected under state and federal law. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives parents or guardians (including anyone acting in a parental role in the parent's absence, such as a foster parent or stepparent) the right to inspect their children’s records. “Eligible” students (meaning those who are at least 18 or attending post-secondary school) can also view their own records. The law applies to all educational institutions that receive federal funds—which includes practically every public and private school and college.
Without the written consent of the parent or eligible student, schools can disclose the records (except for directory information) only to specified other people, including:
- school officials who have a legitimate educational interest in the records (including schools and colleges or universities where the students want to transfer or enroll)
- financial aid officials
- authorities in the state’s child welfare or juvenile justice system, and
- anyone who has a court order or subpoena for the records.
FERPA’s protections have their limits, however. Two important areas of concern:
- Files created by school police. If a law enforcement unit at a school (which can include police officers assigned to the campus) creates or maintains a file concerning your child, it’s not considered an “education” record under FERPA. This is true even if the information in the file is based on the same incident that led to school disciplinary proceedings (which will appear in the education record). Depending on the laws in your state, this exception means that the school police file on your child may be a matter of the public record and could be released to the media or other third parties without your consent.
- No satisfying remedy for FERPA violations. If a school releases education records to someone who isn’t authorized to see them, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that private individuals can’t sue the school for violating their civil rights. The only option for parents and students is to file an administrative complaint with the Family Policy Compliance Office of the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, there’s no time limit for processing the claim and no guarantee that you’ll get a formal hearing. (For more information, see the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse fact sheet on privacy in education.)
For children with disabilities, another federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—provides stronger privacy protections for certain school-record information.
Can Noncustodial Parents See Their Children’s Records?
FERPA gives either parent the right to see a child’s education records, unless a court order says otherwise. But this seemingly clear rule is anything but when viewed in the context of additional federal rules and state practice. In one case, for example, a federal appeals court held that a mother who didn’t have custody couldn’t request a hearing under FERPA to change her child’s school records, because the divorce decree stated that the father had “all legal rights” over the child’s education. Also, federal regulations state that any parents who claim their children as dependents on their tax returns have the right to see their education records. To complicate matters more, some state laws give noncustodial parents more explicit rights to their children’s school-related information.
How Do I Get Access to a School Record?
If you want to see your child’s education record (or your own), the best place to start is often the last school the student attended—or the school district’s main office. (Generally, school records accompany students when they transfer to new schools, though the old school may also keep them as well.) Some school districts require you to sign an official release form that you can get from the school.
Under FERPA, schools have to make the records available for on-site review within 45 days after a request. The federal law doesn’t require schools to mail copies unless that’s the only way the parents or eligible students can get access to the information (for instance, when they live far away). However, many schools make it a practice to provide copies (sometimes for a small copying fee).
Can I Get My Child’s Record Changed?
What if you’re concerned that something in your child’s record is wrong or could cause a problem down the road? Under FERPA, parents and eligible students have the right to request changes if something in the record is inaccurate, misleading, or violates the student’s privacy rights. Note, though, that FERPA doesn’t provide the right to challenge grades or disciplinary decisions reflected in the record. Parents, guardians, and eligible students are also entitled to a hearing if the school refuses to make the requested change. (For more details, see the U.S. Department of Education's guidance for parents on FERPA.)
It might be a good idea to review your child’s school records periodically, to make sure they’re current, complete, and accurate. If there’s something in the information you don’t understand, school officials are supposed to explain it for you.
When Should I Talk to a Lawyer?
You may want to speak to a lawyer specializing in education law if you’re having trouble getting the school to change or get rid of information in your child’s record (or your own). A knowledgeable attorney should also be able to explain how federal and state law applies to your situation. And if you have concerns about records kept by the school’s law enforcement unit, you may want to talk to a criminal defense lawyer.
Questions for Your Lawyer
- What can I do to keep the school from sharing information about my child with my ex?
- If someone has obtained a court order to get a copy of my child’s or my own education record (a “subpoena”), is there anything I can do to stop it?
- Can I get a copy of surveillance video from the school bus that showed a fight involving my child?
- Is there any way of keeping a school from sharing my child’s directory information with the military?