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UI suspends sharing student information for gun permits following investigation

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | FEBRUARY 22, 2013 5:00 AM

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A Des Moines Register investigation into the University of Iowa’s disclosure of confidential information to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office for gun-permit cases has prompted officials to suspend the practice.

“The process with regard to students has been temporally halted since some issues have been raised,” UI Deputy Counsel Nathan Levin said.

The Register’s story revealed the UI had shared information protected under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act — including students’ “academic failures and disciplinary issues.”

Part of the issue centers on a waiver in the two-page application to receive a gun permit.

The waiver says, in part, that the applicant authorizes “review and full disclosure of all records concerning myself  … to any duly authorized agent of an Iowa sheriff or the commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, whether the said records are of a public, private, or confidential nature.”

In an interview with The Daily Iowan on Thursday, university officials questioned whether those who applied for a gun permit fully understood the institution’s right to disclose private information after signing the privacy waiver.

Levin said he believed the waiver signed by students absolved the UI of any legal issues when disclosing the information.

One legal expert, however, disagreed with Levin, and said he found it hard to believe a “very limited privacy waiver” covered all aspects of the federal privacy act, which protects the university from sharing students’ private information.

“I can’t imagine anyone applying for a gun permit assumed [authorities] are going to read [their] report card,” said Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

He further criticized the UI’s use of FERPA and said the university uses the law selectively as it “suits its concealment purposes.”

“I think unfortunately what we’re seeing is a pattern of behavior where FERPA is an on-off switch, and it can be used to conceal what is embarrassing information,” he said.  “The UI went to court to protect the records of a rape by a student-athlete but willingly hands over people’s grades to the Sheriff’s Office.”

One UI student said he no longer trusts the university after its gun-permit practices were revealed.

“I do not trust the university to keep my information safe anymore,” said UI junior Joey Gallagher. “I feel the university has completely lost the trust, but there’s always hope.”

Another student said he felt differently, noting he would not be alarmed if the university shared his information.

“[There’s] no information I would feel uncomfortable with the university sharing,” UI junior Sam Klahn said.

Levin and Mark Braun — the UI interim vice president for Strategic Communications — both stressed students should feel their information is secure. They said the university provided the data but played no further role in the process. The Sheriff’s Office would then determine what, if anything, to do with the information.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek could not be reached for comment Thursday.

This kind of information sharing doesn’t seem to be a practice at another regent university.

Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald told the DI he’s never asked Iowa State University officials for students’ academic information.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who is working on strengthening some aspects of Iowa’s gun laws, believes the Sheriff’s Office should not have access to student records.

“I think part of the process of sharing information today between the university and Johnson County sheriff is greatly informed by a horrific experience that happened on our campus," he said, referring to a 1991 campus shooting. “I share the concern people expressed about the need for academic records.”

The information sharing started after the 1991 shooting. Then-UI researcher Gang Lu, who had received a gun permit from the Sheriff’s Office, shot and killed five people on the UI campus and seriously another, then killed himself.

Levin and Braun cite the shooting as one of the reasons the university works closely with the Sheriff’s Office.

“We see our role as a facilitator of information and pass along whatever information we have,” Levin said.

Braun said officials would look at many different parts when starting the review of the process.

“That was part of what we looked at when we reviewed the process,” Braun said.

“We are now conducting a comprehensive review of the whole process and how the information flows.”

DI reporter Jonathan Solis contributed to this story.


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