The work of information-sharing partnerships must be grounded in a solid understanding of federal and state privacy and confidentiality laws. Most partnerships engage legal advisors experienced in confidentiality issues to help them understand the essential aspects of FERPA, HIPAA, federal drug and alcohol confidentiality laws, and relevant state laws. Judges often make good legal advisors, as do attorneys for schools and school districts and law professors.
Most partnerships find it essential to have all the organizations that intend to participate in information sharing sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or a memorandum of agreement. Essentially, an MOU lays out why the parties have come together and how they will work together.
To craft an MOU, partners need to take the time to articulate their objectives in sharing information and the role that each organization will play. The process of figuring out why, how, and when schools and community partners will share information takes time and should not be rushed. It is only once this process is complete that the partnership can move on to discussing what information can be shared and under what circumstances.
See Checklist for Developing an Information-Sharing MOU for the types of information to include in your MOU. Some sample information-sharing MOUs are available here.
Note: These samples are provided as a starting point and are not intended to be templates. Seek input from a legal expert about the laws and regulations governing information sharing in your own state and locality.
MOUs are typically signed by the head of each participating organization, after consultation with the organization’s legal counsel. Therefore, partners are advised to engage their organization’s attorney in the process of developing the MOU and to keep their agency heads informed about the MOU development process. Some communities find that the signing of the MOU presents a good opportunity to hold a kick-off event with all the partners in the information-sharing initiative.
In addition to creating MOUs, partnerships often develop policies that outline the principles supporting information sharing. Some sample policies related to information sharing among schools and community agencies are available here. Just like the sample MOUs, the sample policies provided here are resources to guide your partnership as you develop policies customized to your community’s needs, rather than documents you should use exactly as they are.
In an effort to reduce liability, some communities have created MOUs and policies that are more restrictive than prevailing laws require. Unnecessary restrictions can have a dampening effect on the legal sharing of information. Your partnership should take the initiative to carefully review federal and state laws, and create interagency agreements and policies that are not more restrictive than required by law.
Federal and state laws typically regulate third-party access to personally identifiable information about children and youth. In most cases, the release of this information is controlled by the minor or the minor’s parent or legal guardian via the signing of an “authorization to release” or another type of consent form.
When schools and their community partners seek to share information about youth involved in multiple systems, it is ideal to have a uniform consent form that each organization can use when requesting the release of information about a child. Developing a form that is acceptable to several agencies can be time-consuming, but it is definitely worth the effort. With one common form, the organizations don’t have to determine which form is more appropriate, and several types of information (e.g., education, mental health, child welfare) can be requested at once.
Many school districts and community agencies have developed their own consent forms; some samples are available here. Again, please note that these forms will need to be tailored to your local circumstances.
Each partner organization must train staff who will be involved in information sharing on relevant laws, policies, and procedures. During these trainings, it is important to explain to staff how the process of sharing information is likely to result in better planning, treatment, and coordination of services for youth involved in multiple systems.
Cross-agency training sessions are a great way for professionals in each discipline to get to know their peers in partnering organizations and to better understand their protocols, legal mandates, and perspectives.
Technology can make the sharing of information among schools and community agencies much easier. An initial step is to identify what information about children and youth each organization already collects electronically, and the format in which it is collected. When electronic data are shared across systems, it’s important to ensure that the security of the data is not compromised. The following examples illustrate how technology can be used to facilitate information sharing:
- The Austin (Texas) Independent School District created an aggregate reporting system through which providers can receive FERPA-compliant academic, discipline, and attendance reports on the students they serve, along with reports on a randomly selected comparison group. The school district also created a website called Youth Service Mapping, which helps professionals, educators, policymakers, and funders who serve youth to understand and view geographically the services available for youth in central Texas. The maps enable providers to track students’ mobility patterns—an essential tool, given that some schools in the district have extremely high student mobility rates. For more information, visit Youth Service Mapping.
- Muskegon, Michigan, schools and community agencies created a multiagency database of information about children and youth from the schools, the department of community mental health, the local department of human services, family and juvenile courts, and private service providers. This database is used, for example, by authorized school mental health professionals working with students involved with the juvenile court so they are aware of individual student’s court dates and probation status, and decisions handed down by the juvenile court judge.
Visit the Plan section on the 3 Bold Steps home page for information related to assessing community needs and resources, drawing a roadmap for the partnership, and creating infrastructure to support implementation.