Confidentiality

1. An advisor who acts in accordance with her or his institution's policies concerning the confidentiality of student records can usually count on the full support of the institution. An advisor who violates institutional policies, whether knowingly or through ignorance, compromises the institution and may consequently find herself or himself in an untenable legal position. You should do everything reasonably possible to protect the privacy of every advisee and the confidentiality of her or his records.

2. The College's policy complies with the federal rules and guidelines of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (Buckley Amendment), as administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

3. Confidential information is everything you know about a student that is not defined as "Directory Information" in the Catalogue and in The Compass. Confidential information may be released only with the written consent of the student whose record it is. In general, the information students release to third parties is most likely to be requested from the Registrar, the Dean of Students, the Office of Student Financial Assistance, or Business Services. If in doubt, check with the appropriate administrators.

4. In general the confidential material that you will handle will consist of national test scores, high school rank and grades, Cornell or transfer grades and credits, GPAs, citations and letters of unsatisfactory scholarship, unsatisfactory campus citizenship (disciplinary probation and suspension), financial irresponsibility (suspension for nonpayment), and comments from instructors or other counselors.

5. Praiseworthy accomplishments must be treated just as confidentially as those that the advisee might consider embarrassing or blameworthy. Although logic might lead you to assume that anything positive need not be kept in confidence and that no student would object to your revealing that he or she has a GPA of 4.0 or is on the Dean's List, some students may not wish this information made public.

6. You may occasionally become privy to information about the student or her or his family's medical, psychological or sexual history; learning or physical disabilities; financial situation; criminal record; etc. This information should, of course, be regarded as very privileged and highly confidential.

7. It is against the law to reveal confidential information about an advisee to your spouse or even to faculty colleagues, unless they have legitimate academic business with that student, and then only under very special circumstances best discussed in advance with the Dean of Students, the Director of Counseling Services, or the Registrar.

8. An advisee has no legal right to see your counseling notes provided that these notes are used exclusively by you and only for the purpose of advising the student. If you commit highly sensitive or potentially embarrassing or damaging information to writing, you must take every precaution to keep others from having access to that file or from accidentally seeing the file. In general, you are safer if you do not keep a written record and if you destroy (by shredding) any records whose confidentiality you do not believe you can adequately safeguard. Faculty offices are not very secure repositories because they are often left unlocked, are used by student assistants (who often have keys and work there alone), and are places where students and others wander in and out, wait, or transact business.

9. Train yourself to put away confidential materials as soon as you have finished using them and before your next appointment enters or you leave your office. Students have been known to read papers left uncovered on a faculty member's desk and to open "closed" folders in order to satisfy their curiosity. Also keep confidential files separate from routine or departmental files to which others have access.

10. In sending confidential information, including copies of letters, through campus mail, be sure to seal it in an envelope. No one but the person to whom the material is being sent should see it.

11. Federal law protects the confidentiality rights of students. If it is necessary or expedient for student assistants to handle confidential material about other students, you should have full confidence that the student(s) will honor the confidentiality. Some offices have their student assistants sign a confidentiality statement which is a formal agreement that the student will not discuss any confidential information he or she has seen.

12. If you wish to show an individual a confidential document that pertains to her or him but includes confidential information about other students (e.g., your grade book), you must somehow cover or delete the portions of the document that relate to the other students. This can be done by masking the restricted material with pieces of paper or by photocopying the original, cutting or masking the appropriate parts, and then photocopying the remainder to show or give to the student.

13. In general it is the College's policy to cooperate with parents to the extent that the law allows. If you are approached by a parent, consult the Registrar or the Dean of Students before releasing anything without the student's written consent.

(a) Most students tell their parents when they are in trouble; however, there are perhaps 50 students each year who, under the provisions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Buckley Amendment), deny their parents access to all confidential information about them. In such cases, the Registrar is not permitted to send their parents copies of their grade reports, probation citations, or even letters of suspension. The Registrar will notify advisors of advisees who have requested information to be withheld.

(b) When you receive a call from a parent, first determine whether the parent is aware of the situation. If the parent was informed by the student, it is then permissible to discuss the problem, to explain the College's policy and what the student can do. If in doubt as to what to say, refer the parent to the Registrar (if the matter involves Academic Warning, Probation, or Suspension), or to the Dean of Students (if the matter involves physical or mental health, discipline, or residence life).

(c) The danger lies in revealing a fact that the student does not wish her or his parents to know or that was told to you by the student in strict confidence. Your advisee, for example, missed a week of classes, which resulted in his failing a course. His parent calls to ask why he failed (thereby indicating that the parent has seen the student's grade report or been informed by the student). You may mention the absences, but you may NOT reveal that he took his girlfriend to another city to have an abortion. If you believe that the parents should know in order to help the student, then you must persuade the student either to tell the parents or to give you written permission to do so.

(d) When you are not certain of the right course of action, tell the parent that you cannot say anything more now but will get in touch with her or him later. If the parent is pressuring you to confirm something that is confidential (e.g., Did my daughter have an abortion?), tell the parent to ask the student--that you are not permitted by law to answer such questions.

(e) The law also does not permit you to release confidential information about a student to her or his spouse without the student's written consent. If you are asked by a spouse, follow the same procedures as you would if approached by the student's parents.

14. Cornell faculty, administrators, and staff have no legal right by virtue of their employment to confidential information. You should neither volunteer such information nor automatically comply with a request for it. The inquirer should give you a release form signed by the student or you yourself should confer with the student to obtain her or his consent. Where the faculty member or administrator is the person with official jurisdiction in the matter at issue or is already engaged in counseling the student, you have more leeway but should probably obtain the student's consent if the confidential information is personal rather than academic. You may, however, reveal such information without the student's consent to the proper college authority in cases where there is danger that the student may do harm to herself or himself or to others (e.g., alerting the Dean of Students to the fact that your advisee has talked about committing suicide).

15. It is quite permissible to discuss a case with a colleague if you do not identify the student and the student's identification is not otherwise obvious from what you say. You may wish to know how to proceed, to whom to refer, what your liability is, what the College policies are, etc.

16. You should never reveal information if it would prejudice the recipient against the student (e.g., telling the student's current instructor that the student cheated in a previous class) or if the recipient is not likely to keep the information confidential.

17. Under no circumstance should you release any information, confidential or otherwise, to a person outside the College unless that party shows you a consent form signed by the student. Certain unscrupulous government and law enforcement officials, lawyers, insurance investigators, debt collectors, and the like, attempt by intimidation to obtain confidential information to which they are not entitled. They may flash a badge or show impressive credentials or try to deceive you by telling you that you are required by law to answer their questions. If you are contacted by such persons and they cannot show you a signed release, refuse the request and do not give them any information whatsoever. Tell the inquirer that you will only discuss the student when presented with a signed release. If the inquirer persists, refer the person to an appropriate administrator. Some of these inquirers are fishing for other kinds of information that they may use against the student; so a seemingly innocent comment by you to the effect that the student was a nice person and was a big help to you when you were the advisor for the Young Communists Club may do more damage to the student than releasing the student's GPA.

18. You are entitled as the advisor to have access to your advisee's records in the various administrative files if the administrator in charge of a file believes that you have a legitimate reason for the information and if the student has not expressly denied you access. If your advisee has denied you access, you have several choices: accept the decision, ask the advisee to release the information, or resign as the advisor.