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The Parent’s Guide to Privacy Rights

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The Parent’s Guide to Privacy Rights

This new work is the perfect introduction to the myriad privacy concerns and questions that parents and students face in schools. By Brenda Leong

Data privacy is the issue of the day—not only in the broader society but also in our nation’s schools. As districts increasingly rely on technology to improve student-learning outcomes, collect and store electronic data for administrative efficiency, and provide online resources for students, many parents have expressed confusion about their rights to information that concerns their child’s privacy. 

In April, the Future of Privacy Forum worked with the National PTA and Connect Safely to produce A Parents’ Guide to Student Data Privacy in an effort to help parents understand current student-data privacy policies and protections under the law.

The guide provides straightforward, easy-to-understand explanations for who can access student data, what education companies can do with student information, and how federal laws protect student data. It also includes information about when parents can opt out of sharing their child's information, and how parents can gain access to, make corrections to, or request deletion of their child’s information.

Without question, the guide is both timely and much needed. For administrators, it’s a perfect way to introduce parents to the myriad privacy issues that can seem overwhelming.

Old Policies, New Technology

Consider that current student data laws were written in the years before student records were maintained electronically, and before much student learning and school administration were handled via third-party technology vendors.

Many stakeholders—including vendors, policymakers, and educators—believe these laws need to be updated, and there are numerous efforts at both the state and federal level to amend or rewrite them to more directly address the current state of education technology. 

Moreover, there has been an increase in the volume of national discussion about educational policies and practices generally—addressing everything from curriculum standards to testing—and student privacy has figured more and more prominently in these debates.

For these reasons, we felt this was the right time to step in to help explain to parents what their rights are to access and correct information about their child in the education ecosystem.

The foundational law regarding parental rights to a student’s education record is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), written in the 1970s to help parents access information held by the school about their children.

Most current education records are recorded electronically, and access rights must be understood in the context of information shared with third parties via learning management systems and online assessment programs. Our guide explains how, even though records are now maintained electronically, parents still have the right to use FERPA as a vehicle to view their child's information.

For children under 13, another law—the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)—places strict requirements on vendors whose sites or products gather information directly from children. Critically, before a website or service can collect that information, “verifiable parental consent” must be obtained, meaning a parent must expressly allow the child to provide the information. The Parents’ Guide explains how, in an educational setting, the school is authorized to provide that consent, but only for educational purposes.

In all cases where a school partners with outside companies to provide either learning tools or administrative programs, the school must maintain control and authority over all individual student data. With limited exceptions, such as to improve or develop their products, companies may only use the information for authorized educational purposes. Parents still retain the FERPA right to access the information (via the school), and the school can require the vendor to delete the data when the educational purpose is complete.

Opting Out

Another topic that has received substantial attention recently is “opting out.” In the context of privacy and student data, this means—for certain uses—parents may instruct the school not to share their child’s information. Schools are authorized to designate certain types of personal data (such as name, address, and telephone numbers) as “directory information” and share that information. Examples of this would be data given to yearbook companies, or information shared for school events such as stage productions, awards ceremonies, or sports teams. However, each year the school must first clearly tell parents what information it has included in this category, and must then give parents the chance to “opt out” of having it shared for these optional activities.

Finally, there may be times when parents disagree with the accuracy of something in their child’s record.  In such cases, parents have the right to request corrections, make an appeal if their request is denied, and file complaints or concerns about these rights with the appropriate government agency. The guide helpfully and in detailed form lays out a step-by-step process to help parents take these actions, specifying the federal laws governing this process and providing specific contact information.

The education system is evolving and transforming at a unmatched pace. Within that cycle of change, student data and its privacy implications play a central role. It’s understandable that parents feel a sense of detachment or anxiety about how these changes—in both policymaking as well as digital application—are impacting how information about their child’s education is being affected and protected. We developed this guide to address and answer these needs.

Of course, blueprints like ours only go so far, and they must be matched by an ongoing, proactive effort by parents to engage on this issue with their schools. It will also continue to be important for parents to collaborate with other key stakeholders—such as teachers, school administrators, and lawmakers at all levels of government—to ensure that student data and privacy remain at the forefront of any debate over education policy.

To get a free copy of the guide, visit ferpasherpa.org/parents-guide.html.

Brenda Leong is senior counsel and director of operations at the Future of Privacy Forum. She works on education technology industry standards and collaboration on privacy concerns and partners with parent and educator advocates for practical solutions to student-data privacy challenges.

Image: Ian Sanderson / Media Bakery

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