Support Local Journalism


Since the 2007 Virginia Tech campus massacre that killed 32 people, the federal government has urged university officials to share information about potentially dangerous students, despite confidentiality laws.

But in Montana, strict state laws protecting a student’s private records make that harder to do, Montana State University officials say.

At a two-day workshop in Bozeman on how laws affecting students and American colleges are evolving, Stetson University law professor Peter Lake of Florida spoke to about 85 campus officials from across Montana.

Lake said U.S. Department of Education officials in Washington want campuses to share confidential information about threats.

That’s in spite of the federal privacy law, FERPA, protecting student records from being disclosed, even to parents, without students’ consent. FERPA stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

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 are afraid to share it. As a result, information ends up in isolated “silos” — with campus police or medical clinics, student disciplinary officers or professors — instead of being shared across campus.

Lake said when there is a “significant” threat that campus employees can explain — “I’m afraid of John or Sally because …” — the U.S. Department of Education now wants them to share the information.

Leslie Taylor, MSU legal counsel, reminded campus employees that they also have to follow Montana state law, which says they cannot share student disciplinary records without a student’s OK. However, Taylor added, that doesn’t bar campus employees from sharing “personal observations.”

Montana university officials may find they need to ask the state Legislature to change the law, Lake said. They should not only be breaking down silos on campus, but beyond, he said. Public K-12 schools know a lot about troubled students, and the military, employers and other states may have important information, he said.

It’s good that people from different Montana campuses realize “we’re all in this together,” Lake said, because it’s important to share information between campuses. Otherwise, a student expelled by one campus for threatening to stab someone will probably end up at another state campus.

Matt Caires, MSU dean of students, said when he worked at the University of Wyoming, the dean’s office could call parents when students got in trouble with drugs or after the second alcohol violation.

“Montana law says you can’t call mom and dad,” Caires said.

Many U.S. campuses have created teams — student care or threat assessment teams — to share information and prevent tragedies. Lake predicted that sooner or later, the federal government will require such teams.

Caires said MSU has long had a Behavior Intervention Team to respond to specific problems. When he became dean two years ago, Caires said a second Students of Concern team was created to discuss students who may be a danger to themselves or others.

It meets twice a month. Members include Caires, the police chief, counseling center head, the veterans and disability director and student housing directors.

Over two years, MSU’s Students of Concern team has considered 150 students, Caires said. Some concerns are minor. Sometimes the team hears of a guy in the dorms who’s talking about suicide, or is delusional, or a young woman who is exercising six hours a day and is down to 80 pounds, he said.

Team members discuss whether to call the troubled student and invite him or her in to the dean of students’ office for a talk about “what we can do to support them,” Caires said.

“Most of these young people are happy, successful, doing great things,” Caires said of MSU’s 14,660 students. “We intervene when we have reports (of troubled students). It is rare, but it is the most important work we do.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.