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Forum Guide to Protecting the Privacy of Student Information: State and Local Education Agencies

4.B. Defining "Legitimate Educational Interests"

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) makes it clear that “school officials with legitimate educational interests” may be given access to personally identifiable information about students. However the law does not say specifically who those persons are, nor does it stipulate how to determine the limits of a legitimate educational interest, although the U.S. Department of Education could rule, as a matter of law, that a school official did not have “legitimate educational interest” in accessing information contained in education records. Agencies or schools maintaining personally identifiable data about students should have written criteria for determining which school officials have a legitimate educational interest in specific education records because this must be included in the annual notification to parents, as specified in FERPA. Agencies or schools could make broad decisions based on legal requirements and good practices. The intent to follow this practice should be stated in the school’s or agency’s written policy and must be included in the annual notification of rights under FERPA. The Family Policy Compliance Office has a model notification that contains sample language.

In determining the school officials who might need access to education records, it is more practical to establish broad position criteria than to list exactly who, or what individual positions, qualify. General criteria such as the following might be useful:

  • a person employed by the agency or school in an administrative, counseling, supervisory, academic, student support services, or research position, or a support person to these positions; or
  • a person employed by or under contract to the agency or school to perform a special task.

Identifying a person as a “school official” does not automatically grant him or her unlimited access to education records. The existence of a legitimate educational interest may need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. A sample policy statement of what constitutes legitimate educational interest might include substantiation such as the following:

  • The information requested is necessary for that official to perform appropriate tasks that are specified in his or her position description or by a contract agreement.
  • The information is to be used within the context of official agency or school business and not for purposes extraneous to the official’s areas of responsibility or to the agency or school.
  • The information is relevant to the accomplishment of some task or to a determination about the student.
  • The information is to be used consistently with the purposes for which the data are maintained.

Having access to education records or the information within the records does not constitute authority to share this information with anyone not given access through the written policy. This is particularly critical if the data are to be used away from the agency or school by contractors or consultants. See section 6 for more information on releasing information outside an agency.

After the policy defines school officials with a legitimate educational interest, a list of authorized positions or persons and records or specific data elements to which they may have access could be created. This is particularly important if the system is automated.

The records manager decides the legitimacy of each request for information. If there is any doubt or question regarding the request or the legitimate educational interest, the records manager should not disclose the information without the approval or concurrence of the appropriate agency or school officials or written permission from the student or parent.