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Should You Disclose Your Child's Medical Records to Their School?

Holly couldn’t believe it. Her 6-year-old son Carter has always been a handful — but she never expected it would come to this: Carter was recently been diagnosed with a mood disorder.

Even as an infant, life had been a struggle for Carter. One minute he’d be playing happily and the next he would erupt into a full-blown tantrum, and Holly would have to spend the rest of the day helping him settle down. Daycare was a disaster, and kindergarten wasn’t much better. By the 1st grade, Carter’s struggles had just seemed to intensify. He was often lethargic, and spoke frequently about how the other kids didn’t like him.

For Holly, Carter’s behavior was all too familiar. It reminded her so much of her younger sister Cynthia, who had struggled with depression and an eating disorder in high school. Then there was Carter’s biological dad Ryan, who struggled.

In November Holly took Carter to see the pediatrician, who referred her son for a psychological assessment, which led to the mood disorder diagnosis. For Holly, it was a relief to know more about Carter’s challenges and, without hesitation, she called the school to share the information. A meeting was arranged and the school proposed an evaluation for Special Education services. That’s when Holly signed the release form so the school could access Carter’s medical records.

But What if Word Got Around?

When Holly arrived home from the meeting, she had second thoughts about signing the release. It didn’t occur to her until later that the paperwork contained sensitive information about her family history. She wasn’t sure her sister would want someone else knowing about her struggles. Carter’s dad was now a well-known businessman in their small town and he probably wouldn’t be happy if his clients knew his mental health history.

“What if word got around?” Holly thought to herself. “Maybe I should have talked to them first.”

Releasing medical records can be a real dilemma for parents of children with mental health, emotional or behavioral challenges. Unfortunately, these issues can still carry a stigma of blame and shame, and many people misinterpret the potential behaviors associated with mood disorders. And once a release has been signed, information in the child’s medical records can be shared with anyone in the school district who has an educational interest in the child.

As a result, sensitive family information can unintentionally become part of the child’s special education records even if it isn’t necessary for educational purposes.

Here are some important things parents should know:

1. Remember Why the School Wants the Information

Most educators have honorable intentions and want to do the right thing to help their students be successful. When a student is struggling with behavior issues and academic challenges, it can be incredibly helpful to understand the root causes of that struggle. That way appropriate supports and services can be put into place.

2. Know Your Rights

As a parent, you should learn more about your rights and responsibilities when it comes to your child’s medical records and school records. The privacy of medical records is protected in the United States by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), which prevents the use of medical records in ways that have nothing to do with health care. (See resources below to learn more.)

School records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prevents the sharing of information from a student’s education records with a third party without written consent from the parent. Once you sign that release, the information is protected under FERPA, not HIPPA. This helpful comparison explains the difference between the two acts.

3. You Don’t Have To Share EVERYTHING

The school district doesn’t need to know everything about your family medical history in order to help your child, and it’s absolutely your choice to protect sensitive information. Parents can choose to provide the school with a copy of their child’s diagnosis and the recommendations associated with school supports without releasing all medical records, including sensitive information you’d rather keep confidential.

Do you have experience sharing medical records with your child’s school? Please offer your thoughts and experiences with other parents who are trying to help their child.