Montana Law Impedes Schools from Sharing Data

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN — Montana law prevents schools from sharing information about potentially dangerous students, despite urgings of the federal government to make such data more available in the wake of a mass shooting at Virginia Tech University in 2007.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported Sunday that strict state laws protecting a student’s privacy hamper such efforts at schools including Montana State University.

The U.S. Department of Education wants campuses to do a better job of communicating about students who pose potential risks. But Montana law forbids the sharing of student disciplinary records without a student’s permission.

Matt Caires, MSU dean of students, says the state law even prevents the school from informing parents in the event of problems including drug and alcohol abuse.

“Montana law says you can’t call mom and dad,” Caires said at a two-day workshop in Bozeman focusing on how laws governing students and American colleges are evolving.

Concerns over potentially dangerous students peaked in 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks, approximately two hours apart, before committing suicide.

Cho had been diagnosed with a mental disorder, but university officials were unaware of his illness.

One of the lessons of Virginia Tech was that different offices on campuses may have important information about threats or students with mental health problems, but because of confidentiality laws, they were afraid to share it.

Now, however, U.S. Department of Education is urging agencies within a university including law enforcement to share information, so that important details don’t get locked up in so-called “silos” that prevent appropriate decision-making, Stetson University law professor Peter Lake of Florida told about 85 people from across Montana who were attending the workshop.

Leslie Taylor, MSU’s legal counsel, reminded campus employees that they also have to follow Montana state law, however, which says they cannot share student disciplinary records without first securing permission from the student.

However, Taylor added, that doesn’t bar campus employees from sharing “personal observations.”

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