Parents frustrated by student privacy laws want more transparency in schools

Generally, parents want to know as much as possible as what's going on in their children's schools.

"We want to know what's happening," said Tom Przystawik, the parent of a Wakefield High School freshman. Przystawik spoke with Fox 5 when Wakefield returned to school following the death of a student after an apparent overdose.

Przystawik said he was satisfied with communication about that particular incident, understanding school districts can't say everything about every situation, but it made him wonder what he didn't know as a parent.

"Are there other problems that they're not telling us? Hard to know for sure," Przystawik told Fox 5's Maureen Umeh.

Other parents wanted more transparency from Arlington County Public Schools.

"Parents and students, as well as teachers, deserve transparency and actions," said Judith Davis, PTSA President of Wakefield High School, "Let the parents know what it is they're planning on doing instead of just sending emails saying ‘medical emergency, we've got it under control. No you don't, you don't' have anything under control. Parents and students, as well as teachers, deserve transparency and actions."

Fox 5 has also heard frustration from parents in Montgomery County where officials released data last month showing a 120% increase of youth overdose fatalities between 2021 and 2022.

In response, the county held an informational community meeting about opioids and children.

Some parents told Fox 5's Stephanie Ramirez they wanted more information about what exactly was happening in the schools.

In many instances, parents are frustrated by what they feel is a lack of answers as school districts cite the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA, as a reason they can't release more information.

"These are minors, these are people who shouldn't have their names released to the general public, and that's really what FERPA is trying to protect," said Paul Schiff Berman, a law professor at George Washington University who has familiarity with FERPA.

Berman says FERPA is designed to keep student information between the student, their family and the school.

"The question is: What is the information that parents think they are entitled to about somebody else's kid? And I think we'd have to look, case-by-case, and see if they're really entitled to it, and why they're entitled to it," Paul Schiff Berman said.

Berman says if there's a broader public safety or public health issue, the school can release details about the response and resources available, but cannot give specifics about the student unless that student's parents give permission.

"Certainly, school officials can talk about how they are responding in general to a particular problem, ‘We are providing counseling to students,' ‘Here are our protocols for dealing with overdoses in general', ‘here's how we generally intervene'," Berman said.

Fox 5 also spoke with a former school administration official who said public disclosures can also be impacted by ongoing criminal investigations. That official says there were times in their tenure they wanted to release additional details, but couldn't due to FERPA.