N.C. Dropout-Prevention Law Raises Privacy Issues

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Students who drop out of high school are giving up more than their diplomas in North Carolina: A new state law says dropouts must also surrender their driving privileges. But now some critics contend the measure goes too far and violates a federal student-privacy law.

A 1997 state dropout-prevention law that took effect this past September mandates that schools notify the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles when students drop out of high school or fail to make "satisfactory progress" in their classes. The motor-vehicles agency, in turn, suspends the students' driving privileges.

Though other states have passed similar laws, North Carolina's has hit a brick wall of opposition over the privacy issue. Officials from the U.S. Department of Education, among others, argue that releasing academic records without parental consent violates the federal Family Education and Right to Privacy Act, known as FERPA.

And now, the 19,200-student Johnston County, N.C., school district is refusing to release information that would take away the driving privileges of 410 students in the district--313 for unsatisfactory academic progress and 97 for dropping out. Johnston County is one of several districts waiting to hear from the North Carolina attorney general's office on whether releasing the information would be a violation of FERPA. The attorney general's office has been working with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to rework the law to include parental consent.

The issue came to light after North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dennis A. Wicker, a Democrat, independently asked federal officials for help in amending the state's current law to comply with FERPA.

"That happens from time to time," said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the federal Education Department. "Colleges, universities, schools, or states will contact us to ask us what we think about an ordinance or law" and its compatibility with FERPA, he said.

The federal department has not received any formal complaints from students in North Carolina, and without a complaint filed, the department can only offer the state its advice.

Under FERPA, which was adopted in 1974, schools are not permitted to release student records to a third party without the specific, written consent of the students' parents.

Overwhelming the System

The state is working with federal officials to revise the law to bring it into compliance, but questions remain about what changes need to be made.

"It's a very hazy situation. We're not getting firm direction from the federal government," said Artie Kamiya, the section chief for arts education and healthful living at the North Carolina education department. "They're saying that it's 'likely' that we're violating FERPA," but there's no definitive answer, he said.

"If you were to take FERPA to its logical conclusion," Mr. Kamiya added, "you couldn't put Johnny's name on the honor roll in the newspaper." The law does, however, allow for schools to publish directory information, which includes the honor roll.

The state school board says that students, to keep their driver's licenses, must pass 70 percent of their classes, which has been the standard for students who participate in interscholastic athletics in North Carolina. In addition, the 1997 law requires that students, before their licenses, receive certificates of eligibility, signed by their principals, to prove that they are enrolled in school and meeting academic standards.

Since September, 1,694 students across the state have had their licenses revoked because of the dropout-prevention program, according to the state motor-vehicles agency. There are about 450,000 K-12 students in North Carolina and about 35,000 students of driving age. The driving age in North Carolina is 16 if a student participates in driver's education, and 18 otherwise.

Before the state passed its driving-restriction law, the North Carolina education department took a look at similar legislation in 17 other states, Mr. Kamiya said. Parental consent is not required for the release of academic records to the state motor-vehicles agency in any of those states, which include Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. ("15 States Link School Status, Student Driving," Nov. 6, 1996.)

The North Carolina legislature passed its bill by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority and without much controversy. The measure appealed to lawmakers, in part, because the program funding would be provided not by the state, but by individual districts.

"We believe it can be argued that what we're doing is OK," Mr. Kamiya said. "It's my understanding that other states were not providing parental consent, and our state board of education is sensitive to the fact that state agencies already require too much paperwork," he said.

Effective Encouragement

Since the dropout-prevention effort is required but not financed by the state, local schools boards already have the burden of allocating the money and providing the equipment, such as extra computers, needed for the program. Adding the additional paperwork of a parental consent form, some argue, would only complicate matters.

"When the bill was introduced several years ago, we did support it. [But] at the time, we didn't anticipate the administrative problems, including FERPA," said Lee Ann Winter, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina School Boards Association. "It's not too hard to find out if a kid dropped out of school. [But] to find out if a kid is failing takes a huge amount of time."

According to the Education Commission of the States, only Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia use academic performance to determine teenagers' driving privileges.

Another 14 states base license suspensions on attendance only, often putting students through a probation period to regain their licenses.

States such as Alabama and Georgia revoke the licenses of students who are violent on campus.

Mr. Kamiya of the North Carolina education department maintained that existing provisions of North Carolina law provide for implied consent by parents to the provisions of the anti-dropout effort.

Students must have their parents' permission to take driver education classes, he noted. Therefore, parents are agreeing not only to permit their child to get a license, he argued, but also to comply with all of the related responsibilities--including those imposed by the dropout-prevention law.

Meanwhile, the law itself has been effective in encouraging teenagers to stay in school, according to Mr. Kamiya.

"I've already heard some dramatic stories," he said of the law's impact. "I'm hoping it's supported for a long, long time."

Vol. 18, Issue 30, Pages 20, 23

Published in Print: April 7, 1999, as N.C. Dropout-Prevention Law Raises Privacy Issues
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