Information Sharing: The Foundation

Open lines of communication among all organizations involved with juvenile offenders are necessary to establish a comprehensive treatment approach for offenders and their families. Open communication can prevent replication of services or, worse, lack of services. The ultimate goal of information sharing is to avoid stereotyping or stigmatization of the juvenile offender and to increase the probability that he or she will successfully exit the juvenile justice system, avoid future contact with the system, and complete school and/or secure gainful employment.

Juvenile offenders and other high-risk youth encounter many problems that often require responses from numerous agencies. Such youth may require counseling (both individual and family). They may also have mandatory education requirements associated with the disposition of probation. Personal and family problems and needs can generate turmoil for youth, who may also become lost in a tangle of bureaucratic agencies that too often share only limited information with each other, resulting in fragmented assistance. In most cases, no single agency or advocate "looks after" the needs of an adjudicated youth. Although information about adjudicated youth and their families is usually well documented within the various agencies providing services, seldom does one agency maintain a portfolio documenting the complete range of services that have been and are being provided to the juvenile and the juvenile's family.

A prime example of inadequate information sharing is the situation that often arises when a student returns to school after detention or confinement. Educators must often guess about vital information missing from the student's file, such as information about treatment history, family problems, probationary status, or court-ordered mandates of aftercare services that influence schooling (e.g., attendance and behavior requirements). The time it takes to obtain all the information needed often leads to unnecessary referrals, duplicate services, inaccurate information, and service delays. Inefficiencies in information sharing complicate the reintegration of juvenile offenders into school settings, often hindering the education process or rendering it ineffective. It is the student who suffers the consequences of this highly inefficient system of information sharing.

There are a number of constraints on collaborative information sharing among youth-serving agencies. One such constraint, the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment, is often cited as the reason educators will not share information about students with other agencies. FERPA was enacted to assure parents and students that their privacy interests would be protected through standards for recordkeeping, thus discouraging unnecessary disclosure to any agency of a student's educational records.

Failure of an educational agency or institution to comply with FERPA can result in a loss of Federal funding to that agency. Many educational agencies have been overly cautious in their interpretation of FERPA by establishing policies recognizing a generalized right to privacy with regard to all student records and information. These policies often pose significant obstacles to information sharing among agencies.

In recent years, FERPA has been amended to promote information sharing between educators and juvenile justice system personnel. The Improving America's Schools Act (IASA) of 1994 (Public Law 103-382) permits information sharing (subject to State statute) between educators and juvenile justice system personnel on juveniles prior to adjudication. In addition, OJJDP's review of the FERPA statute and the current U.S. Department of Education (ED) regulation (34 CFR Part 99) have shown that FERPA need not stand in the way of effective interagency information agreements between schools and other agencies with whom they share a common interest.

Guidance on information sharing by and with schools in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is available from OJJDP or ED in Sharing Information: A Guide to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Participation in Juvenile Justice Programs, an indepth review of FERPA and its impact on information sharing; and in two related OJJDP Fact Sheet publications, which offer concise guidelines for information sharing.7

Individual State laws may impose some restrictions on information sharing. However, the Federal FERPA statute allows educational institutions to share information freely among themselves. If a correctional facility also includes an educational unit, the sharing of educational records would not be precluded by Federal law.

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From the Courthouse to the Schoolhouse: Making Successful Transitions Juvenile Justice Bulletin February 2000