I’m seeing a lot of weird restrictions being imposed on parents and their advocates by school officials invoking FERPA.
A lot of what I’ve heard quoted about FERPA is actually a wrong use of FERPA. Let me give you an example.
District representatives have recommended a student attend a different special ed placement at a different school from their current placement. The parent would like to visit the school, see the classroom, and talk to the teacher face to face.
The district representative says, “Oh, no. You can only speak to the teacher over the phone because otherwise you might violate students’ FERPA rights.”
Is the district representative right? No.
My son attended a large urban district beginning in 2004. When he was in elementary school, it was easy to arrange a visit. Once a year, about a month before the annual ARD/IEP meeting, I would request to observe my son’s school day. He was receiving services in a gen ed classroom.
I usually arrived about 10 minutes after the first class had begun, then shadowed throughout the day. I didn’t ask any questions. I just observed. I took notes. I didn’t talk to staff unless they initiated the conversation. I sat at the back of the room while the teacher taught and the students ignored me.
It wasn’t a big deal. The school staff were usually happy to see me. And, I really didn’t visit school most of the rest of the year. Just to prepare for the annual ARD/IEP meeting.
Then at the ARD/IEP meeting, I used my notes and observations to inform my input about what his next annual IEP should look like. The PLAAFP, IEP goals, accommodations, and service requests.
Because I had observed in the classroom, I was able to make informed comments and have an informed, productive, and collaborative conversation with the ARD/IEP committee members.
That would be almost impossible to do now.
I didn’t really learn/remember the names of any of the students in my son’s classes, or learn anything else about those students other than what color their hair was from the back of the room.
I did an abbreviated form of this visit when he was in junior high. However, by then, he was very embarrassed if he saw me in class. Usually, I just observed at lunch and in one of his elective classes.
Why has it become so difficult for parents to visit their children’s classroom in today’s post-pandemic, school shooting, hyper-vigilant climate?
Do parents who visit the school really put student’s FERPA in jeopardy of being violated?
What does the Department of Education Say about FERPA for K-12?
I sent an email asking this very question about parent visitation to the kind people in DC who are trusted by the Department of Education to answer these kinds of questions from parents and school officials, the FERPA technical assistance department. Here’s what they said:
“Briefly, FERPA is a federal law that protects the privacy of students’ education records. The term “education records” means those records that are: (1) directly related to a student; and (2) maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution. FERPA affords parents and eligible students (students who have reached 18 or are in college at any age) the right to have access to the student’s education records, the right to seek to have the records amended, and the right to have some control over the disclosure of information from the records. Under FERPA, an educational agency or institution is prohibited from disclosing personally identifiable information (PII) from students’ education records, without consent, unless the disclosure meets an exception to FERPA’s general consent requirement. FERPA does not protect the confidentiality of information in general. Rather, FERPA prohibits the improper disclosure of personally identifiable information derived from education records. “
Nowhere in this explanation does it say parents visiting a classroom constitutes gaining access to personally identifiable information.
So, that school official who told me that a visiting parent would potentially violate student’s FERPA rights was wrong. Unless the teacher was going to show the parent the student records for the students that class, which I highly doubt would have happened.
Their answer mentions a lot about student records. I don’t know about you, but when is the last time you visited a teacher, and they wanted to share their grade book showing every child’s grades? Or other child’s records?
That would be, never.
Never, ever during one of my parent visits to the school, has a teacher ever provided me access to other students’ records.
What Else Does FERPA Say?
Now, the FERPA record privacy protections have some exceptions.
They are as follows:
“In addition, the confidentiality of personally identifiable information (PII) in the education records of children with disabilities is further protected by Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (20 U.S.C. 1417(c) and 34 CFR §§ 300.610-300.626).
Access to, Amendment of, and disclosure of educational records. Also, under the “school officials” exception to the consent requirement, FERPA permits a school to disclose education records to contractors (e.g., software/application vendors, lawyers), consultants (e.g., nutritional or information technology consultants), volunteers (e.g., home room parent volunteers, field trip chaperones, student volunteers), or other third parties to whom the school has outsourced institutional services or functions, provided that the outside party:
- Performs an institutional service or function for which the school would otherwise use employees;
- Is under the direct control of the school with respect to the use and maintenance of education records;
- Is subject to the requirements in FERPA that PII from education records may be used only for the purposes for which the disclosure was made, and which govern the redisclosure of PII from education records; and
- Meets the criteria specified in the school’s annual notification of FERPA rights for being a school official with a legitimate educational interest in the education records.”
So, what this means is that school volunteers can get limited access to school records.
An example would be a homeroom mom helping a teacher entering grades into the school records system. It also covers software or testing companies that the school contracts with that have software that may require a student to type in their name and student ID number.
The interesting point to note is that everything is about PII being learned from a student record, and not from just being in the classroom or a volunteer at field trip or school event.
Another Misuse of FERPA
There is another way school officials misuse FERPA. This has happened to me a couple of times now. ARD Facilitators have insisted that client parents who have hired me and invited me to accompany them to their child’s ARD meeting must sign a FERPA release in order for me to view records discussed in the ARD/IEP meeting!
This happened to me in both Killeen ISD and Iola ISD.
It wasn’t worth wasting the time to argue, so the parent signed the form. [Insert eye roll emoji here.]
I can’t even begin to tell you how uninformed a school staffer is to implement such a policy. FERPA is about giving parents control over disclosure of information in their child’s records. If a parent has paid me, provided me with their child’s records so that I can be knowledgeable when I discuss their child’s situation at an ARD meeting, in front of them, then of course there is no need to sign a FERPA disclosure form. The parent consents to disclosure when they hire me.
Such are the small minds that attempt to implement school policy in smaller school districts.
Diving a Little Deeper—
OSEP (Office of Special Education Programs) Policy Explanations
Just because FERPA doesn’t address the question of school visitation & observation by parents, it doesn’t mean the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs hasn’t expressed an opinion on this.
A parent did raise this question about her right to visit and observe her child’s classroom during the school day. OSEP developed a response in May 26, 2004 Letter to Mamas that said:
“. . .neither the statute nor the regulations implementing the IDEA provide a general entitlement for parents of children with disabilities, or their professional representatives, to observe their children in any current classroom or proposed educational placement. The determination of who has access to classrooms may be addressed by State and/or local policy. However, we encourage school district personnel and parents to work together in ways that meet the needs of both the parents and the school, including providing opportunities for parents to observe their children’s classrooms and proposed placement options.”
Please note that Congress passed FERPA in 1974. If it applied to protecting a child’s privacy at school during parental visitation, the Letter to Mamas would have mentioned it.
I suggest you download this .pdf to send to any school official who thinks that school visitation is governed by FERPA.
Not only idid OSEP not mention FERPA in their policy explanation, but OSEP encourages school districts to develop common sense policies to allow a parent to observe both during the school day and for a proposed placement option.
OSEP has issued different letters to agencies across the country in an effort to offer policy explanations about FERPA, and interestingly enough, none of those letters involve parent visitation. I’ve provide links to some of the letters here. Those in Texas will find the 2006 Letter to Anderson quite interesting as describes in detail the differences between the privacy protections of FERPA versus those provided under IDEA for special education records.
- In the 2001 Letter to Barlett, OSEP discusses whether a contractor’s use of information from educational records violated FERPA.
- In the 2005 Letter to Mathews, regarding destruction of testing records.
- In the 2006 Letter to Anderson, OSEP discusses the difference in the privacy protections between IDEA and FERPA for the General Counsel of TEA. It clarifies that protections under IDEA of a students special education records are more extensive than the protection afforaded by FERPA.
- In the 2006 Letter to Shay, OSEP address the confidentiality of student records.
- In the 2008 Letter to Coperhaver, OSEP addresses whether consent needs to be obtained in order for state monitoring volunteers to access student records
- In the 2008 Dear Colleague Letter, OSEP addresses the issue of school district disclosure of disabilities on transcripts and report cards.
- In the 2017 Letter to Zacharini, OSEP discusses the notification responsibilites of the district about to destroy student records.
Please note that once again, none of the FERPA questions have to do with visiting campuses or parents finding out PII from visiting a campus.
What does TEA/Texas Education Agency Say?
If you’re not in Texas, check your state education department or agency for their policy on parent visitation.
Since I work mainly in Texas, I will focus on what our state educational agency, TEA says on the matter.
On TEA’s FAQ page for parents, there is a question
“What are my rights as a parent to visit a school during school hours?”
As of October 4, 2023, TEA’s officially answers:
“There is no express right to visit a school, though most, of course, welcome parents. Depending on the security concerns appropriate to the school, most will require a sign-in or sometimes advance notice. Many will not allow visitors during testing or some other particularly busy period. This will all be governed by your district’s policies about parents visiting, which you should be able to get at the school district’s or school’s administration office. A complaint about that policy or about an administrator should be taken through the local grievance process (to the principal, then the superintendent, then the school board), which is also a policy you should be able to obtain from the school district’s or school’s administration office.”
Very interesting. Once again, an agency answers a question about parent visitation and brings up not one mention of FERPA.
Maybe because there is an assumption that a parent visiting a classroom won’t be going through or accessing other student’s records.
Noticing a pattern here?
So, You Want to Visit Your Child’s Classroom?
Here are some Strategies to Try
As the OSEP Letter to Mamas indicated, local school board’s and States get to decide about school visitation policy. Reminder, download the .pdf of Letter to Mamas.
In these days of school shootings, we do want our schools to be safe and have reasonable policies in place to prevent random strangers gaining access. However, I question whether barring a parent who has a child attending the school or who has been recommended to place their child in one of that school’s special ed programs is a reasonable policy.
If you want to visit your child’s classroom or observe, start with this process:
- Do an on-line search to find what the actual, posted school district visitation policy is for your school district.
- Use a search term like: name of school district, visitor policy
- Do not ask a school employee. They will often be misinformed. Experienced school managers have assured me at ARD/IEP meetings that the district allows visitation, only to find out that the official policy was a bit more complicated and required a written request that needed to be approved by a completely different department.
- Do an on-line search to find out what volunteer opportunities there are for parents of general ed kids to attend field trips, help out at school events, and visit the classroom.
- Use search terms like: name of school, volunteer guidelines
- Request to visit your child’s classroom using the posted policy.
If you are told that you cannot visit your child’s classroom or teacher at all, not even when general ed parents are allowed to visit because you might violate FERPA, then you have found evidence of discrimination.
If your district has stated policies that welcome parents of general ed students and prevent parents of special ed children to have the same access, then you have found evidence of discrimination on the basis of disability. That is against the law and the basis for a Civil Rights Complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.
Using FERPA to Discriminate
I strongly believe that school districts are incorrectly citing FERPA to discriminate against parents of children with disabilities. And incidents are only increasing. District administrators have been growing bolder about denying parents access to observing their child’s classroom, while parents of general ed kids are welcomed in with open arms.
Part of the reason for this denial of access is because parents have observed abuses by special ed staff when they have visited in the past and reported it or comlained. Turns out school officials don’t like whistleblowers.
Bye bye access.
Another reason is that some special ed classrooms would be seriously disrupted by parents visiting. Access can be limited in those situations, but it shouldn’t be denied.
When a district or school official denies visitation during school hours to a parent considering a new placement in a different school proposed by the district, the question I ask myself is what do they have to hide?
What are they afraid the parent will see?
Ending the Discrimination
In order to put a stop to this, I’m suggesting three different potential solutions for parents to try.
Using the threat of a Civil Rights complaint and the Letter to Mamas, I was able to overcome a school administrators’ (and their lawyer’s) objection to the parent visiting the school when there were no children in the classroom after school.
Second, parents can use the Level 1, 2, 3 grievance process to bring this issue up before the school board and get their local policy changed.
Third, the parents in a class can approach the teacher at the beginning of the year and tell her that they don’t mind if parents of the other students in the class occasionally observe the class or observe for a specific purpose. When I say occasionally, I mean 1 a month or 1 a grading period.
A parent could type something up like:
I __________ give my permission for parents of other students in this classroom and parents who are considering this classroom as a placement for their child to observe my child in this classroom during the school day no more than one time a month (or grading period). The observer should coordinate the time with the teacher to determine the least disruptive time.
And sign and date it.
Teachers could take the initiative and get permission from the parents of the students in the classroom too.
My view from having been a parent and talking to hundreds of parents of kids in special ed programs is that parents don’t mind if another parent goes occasionally to observe. In fact, most parents with kids in more restricted special ed settings prefer when other parents from the classroom are present observing.
In nearly twenty years of advocating, I’ve never heard a parent complain about another parent visiting their child’s classroom and violating that child’s privacy.
Hopefully, parents reading this will use the suggested strategies to address this in their own district.
If special education really is a collaboration between teachers, schools, and parents, then schools need to stop hiding behind FERPA to shut parents out.