Feds offer guide to protecting student privacy

Feds offer guide to protecting student privacy

(District of Columbia) The U.S. Department of Education released new guidance Tuesday to help schools cope with a variety of competing demands surrounding online education services and student privacy.

The centerpiece of the work is summaries of two key federal laws – the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, but the federal guide also offers a set of best practices that allow districts some room to both protect student privacy and also pursue online programs.

“As an education community, we have to do a far better job of helping teachers and administrators understand technology and data issues so that they can appropriately protect privacy while ensuring teachers and students have access to effective and safe tools,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement.

“We must provide our schools, teachers and students cutting-edge learning tools – and we must protect our children’s privacy,” he said.  “We can accomplish both – but we will have to try harder to do it.”

The issue has become important throughout the nation as classrooms increasingly employ systems featuring on-demand delivery of personalized content. Such interactive functions enhance teacher ability to customize content for individual students, and while transformative they also raise new issues for administrators and parents to consider.

The guidance comes forward as lawmakers in a number of states are looking to severely restrict the use of student information by third-party entities.

One bill, proposed by California’s Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, prohibits education-related websites, online services and mobile apps for kindergartners through 12th graders from compiling, using or sharing the personal information of those students  for any reason other than what the school intended or for product maintenance.

Of the two federal laws governing the activities, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act has been around longest and is perhaps best known. Originally adopted in 1974, the bill gives parents specific rights to inspect and review their child’s educational records and generally requires a parent’s permission to release any personal information from the file.

Key to the current debate, FERPA also defines what information is protected –known as personally identifiable information – such as names, dates of birth or a mother’s maiden name.

The new federal guidance notes that some types of third-party educational services collect FERPA-protected information, which would require the district to take special care to ensure it is properly handled.

The other major law in play is the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, which like FERPA, applies to all programs that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education. This law calls on districts to “notify parents of students who are scheduled to participate in activities involving the collection, disclosure, or use of personal information collected from students for marketing purposes, or to sell or otherwise provide that information to others for marketing purposes, and to give parents the opportunity to opt-out of these activities.”

The new federal guidance points out that many online educational services can trigger either FERPA or PPRA or both and administrators need to be vigilant in keeping up with how student information is collected and maintained.

They also suggest that federal law can just be a starting point.

“While FERPA and PPRA provide important protections for student information, additional use or disclosure restrictions may be advisable depending on the situation and the sensitivity of the information,” the guide said.

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