Notifying Parents: You Can, But Should You?

When students violate your alcohol and other drugs policies, should you tell their parents? There’s no simple answer, but here are some issues to consider.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), as amended in 2000 and 2009, colleges and universities are allowed to notify a student’s parents of any alcohol or other drug violations if that student is under 21 or is claimed as a dependent on the parents’ federal income tax return. The regulation doesn’t require schools to notify parents; but it allows notification as an exception to FERPA’s student privacy protections.

Some colleges and universities have embraced parental notification. In 1998—before the amendments—only about 14% of schools surveyed had a policy of notifying parents of student alcohol or drug infractions. As of spring 2002, 46% had such policies, and another 17% notified parents, at least on occasion, without having a formal policy.

Following the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech involving a student with prior mental health and legal problems, FERPA was amended further to allow administrators more discretion in sharing information with parents when students’ health and safety are believed to be at risk.

Recent news reports show that some schools—including Virginia Tech—are now notifying parents of students’ first alcohol or drug policy violation, rather than waiting until students rack up two or more offenses.

While there’s been little research to establish whether students whose parents are notified are any less likely to break the rules again, a survey of college judicial affairs administrators in 2001 found that 52% believed parental notification had reduced student violations.

The Upside of Parental Notification

In determining your parental notification policy, it’s important to consider what you expect the notification policy to accomplish, and what role you expect parents to take in dealing with student substance abuse issues. Some possible benefits of notifying parents:

  • Parents maintain a profound influence over their college-age offspring. For many students, knowing their parents are involved may be enough to prevent future violations of policy.
  • For students with more serious alcohol, drug, or other behavioral problems, parents are likely to be involved in treatment decisions. Notification brings them into the situation at a relatively early stage.
  • Involving parents gives college staff access to information about at-risk students that may help them provide better care or responses to student issues.
  • Reporting to parents can potentially save some students from traumatic consequences later.

A 2004 survey asked administrators about parental reactions to being notified of a student’s alcohol infractions. About two-thirds of the administrators said 75 percent or more of parents were supportive or very supportive of the notification policy.

The Downside of Parental Notification

Parents can be a source of guidance and support for students, but not all parents have that capacity. In the 2001 survey (of college judicial affairs administrators), one administrator observed, “Parents are more of a detriment than a helpful partner on this campus.”

In the current environment, where some students stay “tethered” to their parents by phone and email, and where parents can be more deeply involved in their student’s daily life than in earlier generations, your school may already have developed the infrastructure for frequent communication with parents.

But if you haven’t, be aware that notifying parents of student alcohol or drug violations can demand an investment in staff and resources. If parents are part of your alcohol and drug prevention strategy, you will need to allocate staff time to making and receiving parent calls.

Other potential drawbacks:

  • Notifying parents may keep students from taking responsibility for their own behavior and developing independence.
  • Notifying parents violates student privacy and trust.
  • A parental notification policy may keep students from seeking help from campus health services for alcohol or other substance abuse problems or health consequences or drug or alcohol use.
  • Informing parents of a student’s alcohol or drug problems doesn’t relieve a college of its legal obligation to provide its students with a safe environment.

Discuss Your Policy with Parents

If you have a policy of notifying parents about student behavioral health issues, alcohol and drug violations, or any other matters make sure to communicate this policy to parents and students from the outset. Include the policy in application and orientation materials. Be explicit about when and how you will notify parents—including the limitations on parental notification for medical treatment, family planning, or other matters where minors may be protected by privacy laws.

Some parents may wish to waive their right to be informed of their student’s breaches of school alcohol and other drugs policies. Make that option clear in your communications as well. 

References

Bernstein E. (2007). Colleges Move Boldly On Student Drinking: Exploiting an Exception to Federal Privacy Laws, Schools Increasingly Notify Parents When Kids Are Caught With Alcohol. The Wall Street Journal. December 6, 2007. Retrieved December 12, 2011, from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119690910535115405.html 

Inter-Association Task Force on Alcohol and other Substance Abuse Issues. (n.d.). Parental notification. Retrieved March 6, 2009, from http://www.iatf.org/parent1a.htm 

Johnson J. (2010). Parent notification policies for underage drinking evolve. Washington Post. February 24, 2010. Retrieved on December 12, 2011, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/23/AR2010022302195.html.

Kapsidelis K. (2010). Alcohol violation notification policies at Va. schools vary. Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch. February 8, 2010. Retrieved December 12, 2011, from http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/2010/feb/08/univ08_20100207-212604-ar-10726 

Lang KJ. (2010). Can calling parents curb risky drinking in college? Winona Daily News, June 9, 2010. http://www.winonadailynews.com/news/local/article_e3317e3a-737e-11df-b402-001cc4c03286.html 

Lowery JW, Palmer CJ, Gehring DD. (2004). Policies and Practices of Parental Notification for Student Alcohol Violations. NASPA Journal, 42(4), 415-429.

Palmer CJ, Lohman G, Gehring DD, Carlson C, Garrett O. (2001). Parental notification: A new strategy to reduce alcohol abuse on campus [Electronic version]. NASPA Journal, 38(3), 72-385.

Zweig KL and Thompson J. (2001). Prevention updates: Parental Notification. The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence. June 2001. Retrieved December 12, 2011, from http://www.higheredcenter.org/files/product/notification.txt 

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