"The whole thing was absurd," says Micky. "The college could have called her [hometown] primary doctor or her psychologist. They could have said, 'Yes, this child is supported by her parents; it's not a broken home.' This could have been easily addressed. But they chose to believe we were the enemy and had to be kept away."
Being shut out from their daughter's care aggravated her condition, they claim. For example, the doctors at the mental hospital didn't know that the young woman had a physical health problem that could potentially complicate treatment. And the staff reinforced her paranoid notion that she was alone in the world when visits from her family could have convinced her she was loved and supported, says Micky.
"It was traumatic for our family, but most of all it was traumatic for her," she says. "She was in the hospital for three weeks with nary a visitor and no information to give to the doctors about her history.
"People just can't believe colleges can do this."
But they can. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act -- better known simply as FERPA -- was passed in 1974 to strictly limit the disclosure of information from students' records.
The law is stringent but does permit disclosure to "appropriate parties" in an emergency that involves the health or safety of the student or others. College administrators, however, often hesitate to act on that exception because they fear getting sued for violating FERPA, says Steven J. McDonald, general counsel for the Rhode Island School of Design and an expert on FERPA.
"People are afraid because they don't know what FERPA says," he says. "It's a very complex statute, so they become paralyzed."
Health professionals are also bound by even more inflexible patient confidentiality rules, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which took effect in 2003.
Others on campus are not barred by such rules, says Dr. Joanna Locke, program director for the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to reduce suicide among college students. "Deans and administrators are still able to contact the parents."
Signs of mental illness in particular constitute an emergency that should warrant parental notification, says Micky.
"I totally support the need to keep sexual issues private," she says. "If there is a pregnancy or something like that, I appreciate that students don't want the parents to be called. But when you're dealing with mental illness, you're talking about someone who has lost their grasp on reality."
In recent years, several parents of students who have committed suicide while away at school have sued colleges for not informing them of the child's deteriorating mental status and failing to provide adequate psychiatric care.
In one well-known case, the parents of Elizabeth Shin sued the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after the depressed 19-year-old set herself on fire in her dorm room in 2000. Shin died of her injuries. The case was settled out of court.
In another closely watched case that went to trial last year, the parents of Charles Mahoney IV sued Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., after their son hanged himself in his fraternity house in 2002. The depressed young man, age 20, had been receiving counseling at the school's mental-health center and had insisted his parents not be notified.
Charles and Deborah Mahoney sued the school for not informing them of his serious condition and failing to protect him. Mahoney's friends testified at the trial that, in the days before his suicide, "we knew something was going to happen" and had alerted campus administrators.
A jury, however, found the school was not liable, saying it had offered Mahoney support and could not have foreseen his suicide.
That case prompted Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), to begin work on a bill, called the Mental Health Security for America's Families in Education Act. The legislation would clarify FERPA by stating that if a licensed mental-health professional certifies that a student is a risk to himself or others, the school may inform a parent or guardian.
"Universities are concerned they will get sued if they tell and sued if they don't tell," says Murphy, who is a psychologist. "This bill will give schools the authority to make an informed decision about sharing information."
Murphy believes a clarification of FERPA may help avoid the kind of breakdown in communication that occurred at Virginia Tech.
The report released by the Virginia governor's office last week recommends revisions to FERPA to make explicit that parents can be notified and information shared among college officials when a student is a danger to himself or others.