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AP: Changes urged for student privacy law

WASHINGTON - A lawmaker who also is a child psychologist wants Congress to better define when a university can release students' mental health information to their parents.

Last week's massacre at Virginia Tech shows the need for such legislation, said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.

Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, 23, went on a shooting spree in a dormitory and classroom building on campus, killing 32 people and himself. It is unclear what, if any, contact the university had with Cho's parents — even after a professor removed him from class for violent writing and disruptive behavior.

Murphy said he would introduce a bill that would allow a university to notify a student's parents without fear of violating privacy laws if that student is deemed to be at risk of committing suicide, homicide or physical assault.

The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 allows access to records in case of an emergency or to protect the health of a student. Parents also can be notified if the student consents.

But the law is written too vaguely, Murphy said in a letter to House colleagues.

"There are many examples where information was not released to parents or guardians regarding a student's mental health, which led to miscommunications and withholding of vital information that would have prevented suicides, assaults and other crimes," Murphy said.

A magistrate ordered Cho in December 2005 to have an evaluation at a private psychiatric hospital after two women complained about annoying calls from him, and an acquaintance reported he might be suicidal. An initial evaluation found probable cause that Cho was a danger to himself or others as a result of mental illness.

David Shern, president of Mental Health America, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, said Murphy's plan sounds reasonable, but he would like to see the specifics.
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