When parents send children off to college, many assume the school will quite naturally notify them if their young student becomes seriously ill or gets into disciplinary, academic, or other acute trouble.
It may be an understandable assumption, since parents are often paying the tuition bills - but it is usually quite wrong.
Most universities and colleges in the United States today will not automatically call a parent when crises arise, campus observers say. While it may seem like common sense to call home, students on most campuses are considered adults whose privacy on medical, disciplinary, and academic matters is sacrosanct.
That's what Cho Hyun Shin and Kisuk Shin say they discovered. The Shins' daughter, Elizabeth, attempted suicide April 10, 2000, in her dorm room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. She died four days later.
Elizabeth had been distraught off and on for months and received medical treatment and counseling from the school after repeated threats to kill herself. Her parents, however, say they were never told by MIT of her threats or made aware of her fragile mental condition.
So last month the couple filed a $27 million wrongful-death suit, charging negligence by MIT, based, in part, on lack of notification, their lawyer says. The school has issued a statement calling Shin's death a "tragedy" and denying those allegations.
It's rare for a lawsuit to be filed in a suicide case. Establishing a custodial relationship is often key to winning, and with the demise of in loco parentis - the legal standard by which schools stood in the place of the parent - in the 1960s, that relationship is difficult to prove.
But the Shin-MIT legal battle highlights a shift in American higher education: Cracks are appearing in the wall of strict confidentiality most colleges maintain.
Under pressure from litigious, often hyperattentive parents and emboldened by recently relaxed federal privacy laws, scores of colleges and universities are choosing to share rather than closet their knowledge of students' problems.
"We're seeing a national increase in parental notification," says Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Student Personnel Administrators in Higher Education. "There's a shift in the philosophy of the relationship between institutions and students and the involvement of the parent. Notification is part of that."
The past five years have seen growing parental pressure to be informed about their children, he says. Driving that trend have been high-profile campus crimes and wider access to crime data.
Some see college consumerism at work, too.
"When tuitions reach $30,000, the number of parental interactions increases dramatically," Mr. Kruger says. "A lot of student-life people and college presidents at elite schools tell me they are spending more time than ever before with parents."
Yet the fact that parental notification is not routine still shocks many parents.
Jeffrey Levy's eyes were opened in 1997 by what he found out after his son had been killed in a car crash. His son had been drunk when he climbed into the back seat of a car driven by another drunken college student. What amazed Mr. Levy, he says, is that the school knew his son had several alcohol violations but had never told him.
Since then, he has traveled the nation banging the drum for more and better parental notification.
"The majority of colleges just don't want to get into this business of notifying parents," he says. "Slowly they're starting to come around because we're putting a focus on it."
A few colleges are now adopting written parental-notification policies, he notes. Some are even doing a good job following them. But most schools are still following strictures that no longer have a strong legal foundation - if they ever did, he says.
In addition to the demise of in loco parentis, Congress also granted broad privacy rights to adult students in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, also called the "Buckley amendment."
Despite such laws, supplying parents with information about students' problems is not nearly as legally difficult as many colleges make it appear, some say.
The Buckley amendment, for instance, permits the release of academic and disciplinary records to parents, Levy says. One provision allows schools to contact parents if the health and safety of a student are at risk. Another permits most student records to be reviewed by parents if the student is still financially dependent on the parents, which most are.
Even so, few colleges have taken advantage of these opportunities, several observers say.
"Some schools had a practice of notifying parents already, but many did not because it was just too much trouble to find out if the student was financially dependent on their parents," says Donald Gehring, a higher-education consultant and former professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
"It was a hassle, so colleges said, 'Look, we're just going to assume everyone is independent, we're not going to notify parents of anything.' "
In 1998, Congress created still broader exceptions, permitting schools to notify parents when students violate campus alcohol and drug rules - whether or not a student is financially dependent on parents. And that seems finally to have shaken the status quo.
Prior to the loosening of the Buckley amendment, only 17 percent of 189 institutions surveyed had a parental-notification policy, researchers at Bowling Green found. But by January 2000, about 59 percent of the same institutions had adopted written or unwritten policies and 25 percent were actively considering adopting them.
"My sense is that these schools were always concerned about alcohol abuse, but the amendment just allowed them to report to parents more easily," Dr. Gehring says.
Some colleges and universities are also increasingly motivated by the idea of "widening the circle of responsibility" to include parents when it comes to alcohol and drug violations.
"By notifying parents, you avoid potential legal liabilities and overcome a potential PR nightmare of the parents coming back and saying, 'If only you had told me things would have been better,' " says Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, a lobby group in Washington. But the counter-pressure is the desire of students to be recognized as independent, he says.
"We have recently begun parental notification with more-serious alcohol-related offenses - vandalism, repeat offenses, or when someone is hospitalized for an alcohol overdose," says John-Paul Checkett, a psychologist and assistant director of counseling services at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. "Time and again, families blame institutions when their children have problems, and that makes them [the schools] want to protect themselves by informing their parents."
Besides privacy, one reason that institutions avoid notification is that administrators fear students may avoid applying.
Surprisingly, just the reverse has happened at the University of Delaware in Newark, one of the most aggressive on notification, where applications continue to rise. The school phoned home on alcohol violations more than 1,200 times last school year, officials say. And it began doing so in 1997, well before Congress relaxed the Buckley amendment.
University President David Roselle says he made the decision to call parents about alcohol violations because it seemed the right thing to do as part of the school's bid to lessen underage drinking. He was opposed by his legal advisers.
"The question was, would we be sued by a student for releasing information?" Dr. Roselle says. "I said, 'I certainly hope so - we would be the sweethearts of every parent in America.' "
Roselle doubts that taking such steps is a forerunner of a full return to in loco parentis. Yet the practice of notifying parents on alcohol and drug violations will spread quickly, he says. All it takes is for a college president to consider deeply the prospect of consoling a family - and then having to confess that the school knew all about their child's problem, but chose not to inform them.
If parental notification does catch on, that will be at least some consolation to Shin's parents. All they wanted, Mr. Shin said in a press conference, was "one phone call." The lawsuit, Mrs. Shin added, was to ensure that in the future MIT and other colleges might notify parents when crises arise with students.
But notifying about mental problems may not be nearly as easy as notifying about drug and alcohol violations, says Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"There are folks in counseling relationships who feel they have one client, the student, and they are very reluctant to share information that might break ethical guidelines and some state civil sanctions," Dr. Pavela says. "Yet there is an obligation to break confidentiality if the student poses a threat to themselves or others. It's tricky."
Indeed it is. And that fine line is what MIT officials are walking now.
At MIT, notification is considered on a case-by-case basis. In a Feb. 4 letter to the campus community, MIT President Charles Vest referred to "the quandary" of "balancing students' legal and medical privacy rights with the obvious interests of parents in knowing how their sons and daughters are doing."
In 1998, a change to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act allowed schools to notify parents if a student violates campus alcohol and drug policies.
Researchers at Bowling Green State University examined parental-notification policies at 189 public and private colleges as of January 2000 and found the following:
The percentage that had a policy or practice of notifying parents increased to 59 percent in 2000 from 17 percent in 1998. (For private schools, the 2000 figure was 88 percent; for public, 43 percent.)
An additional 25 percent were considering adopting such a policy.
Almost two-thirds of the 83 schools that did have a formal policy allowed for notification after the student's first violation - but only about 34 percent said that they commonly contacted parents after just one offense.
At almost 40 percent of the 83 schools, parents were notified only if students received medical attention because of drugs or alcohol.
Source: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators
When it comes to finding out about a student's well-being, there are several things parents can do to penetrate the typical nondisclosure stance of colleges. Jeff Levy, an advocate for more and better parental notification by colleges and universities, recommends:
Know the reputation of the school. "I thought a party school was where they had a lot of parties," Mr. Levy says. "Instead, I found out that it means that the school will let students do just about anything without notifying parents."
Study crime statistics posted on the US Department of Education website (http://ope.ed.gov /security/). This site includes a breakdown of drug and alcohol violations. Be aware that schools with more recorded violations are not necessarily bad - but may enforce and report violations better than other schools.
Know your children more than superficially and keep lines of communication open. Help them understand that you are ready to listen nonjudgmentally to any problem they might encounter. Encourage them to call you with problems.
If your child just isn't that communicative, or if you've had problems communicating and must use alternate means to find out how a student is faring academically, contact the school. You have a right to see school records if your child is financially dependent as defined by the IRS. Even if he or she is not financially dependent, the law now permits schools to notify parents about alcohol and drug violations. Obtain in writing the school's promise to notify you of any such violations.