New School Year Requires Privacy Refresher

As we wave goodbye to the school bus or drop off our college-aged mini-adults on campus, we parents immediately start to wonder what is happening with our students. In the past few years, a host of data issues have parents and school officials struggling to navigate the information superhighway.

The law begins with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). This federal law protects the privacy of student education records. It has reach to almost every educational institution since the law applies to all schools that receive funds under any applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

FERPA was made infamous when confusion regarding the law slowed the intervention for medical treatment of a Virginia Tech student who later went on a shooting rampage. As Inside Higher Ed explained at the time, a presidential report stated that ““it was almost universally observed that these fears and misunderstandings likely limit the transfer of information in more significant ways than is required by law.” Since the regulations provide schools the ability to disclose information “to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals” schools had the ability to disclose information. It took the Virginia Tech attack to make administrations realize the that they need to use the exceptions to the law more fully. Since then, schools have developed emergency responses.

FERPA also provides an excellent model for data privacy. provides a useful summary:

FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level. Students to whom the rights have transferred are “eligible students.”

Parents or eligible students have the right to inspect and review the student’s education records maintained by the school. Schools are not required to provide copies of records unless, for reasons such as great distance, it is impossible for parents or eligible students to review the records. Schools may charge a fee for copies.

An additional note to those parents who have children under 18-years-old attending college part-time. Some universities continue to be blind to the age specifications of the law and treat the high school students as adults. Parents need to file a FERPA consent form signed by the student in some cases. They should also alert the university to the problem because it may suggest other FERPA misunderstandings.

A trend that has grown in recent years is the ability for students to violate each other’s privacy. Sometimes labeled cyberbullying, students often learn private information about each other, and less often (but still too frequently) they publicize this information to embarrass, harass or tease their classmates.  Last year, a secreted computer video camera in a dorm room led to the outing of a gay Rutger’s student and live streaming of his sexual encounters resulted in his suicide a few days later. Tyler Clementi’s death gave witness to the pain such invasions of privacy can cause, but less extreme acts and less extreme reactions occur far too frequently.

An even more bizarre invasion of privacy occurred a Pennsylvania school spied on students using software delivered to the homes. Allegedly to control misconduct by students, the school secretly installed remote webcam software to monitor student’s activity in their homes. This is one of those incidents that many of us would have dismissed as inconceivable hypothetical concerns – until a governmental body was actually arrogant and thoughtless enough to misuse the technology. Lesson learned.

Students, parents and schools all need to remember the purpose of privacy is to protect people. When it is used to ignore students at risk, the purpose of privacy has been distorted. When it is used to spy on people – whether fellow students or the school’s students – then it is a violation of a person’s individual dignity.

Privacy is a human right and essential to human dignity, self-worth, and a functioning society. While it may have no economic value, it has a profound value to society. FERPA and other laws protect these rights, but they can only manage broad uses and mis-use.

As we go back to school, we need to make the values of privacy one of the lessons to be taught and followed this academic year.