On December 12th, the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and National PTA recently co-hosted a webinar for parents to learn more about the critical importance of safeguarding their child’s data privacy at school. FPF Director of Youth & Education Privacy Amelia Vance led the discussion about key student privacy laws and trends.
As school districts across the country cope with a wave of new privacy requirements – 130+ new laws specific to student privacy have passed in 41 states since 2013 – Vance highlighted the ongoing but critical challenge for states to balance access to student data with privacy and security, noting several instances where new laws have inadvertently created limitations on students’ educational opportunities.
“Oftentimes legislatures have to go back and fix the laws… because they didn’t check in with teachers, they didn’t check in with administrators, they didn’t talk to parents about what are the most important things to them,” Vance said. “[Not only about] what are the privacy protections that are important, but also what are the services being provided to your kids that are most important?”
Specifically, Vance cited examples in New Hampshire and Louisiana where strict new privacy laws raised questions about whether schools were permitted to conduct routine activities such as hanging student artwork in hallways, sharing classroom recordings with special education or homebound students, or even producing a yearbook.
Parents play a critical role in bringing these types of issues to light, and the webinar included a review of key questions for parents to ask schools to better understand their privacy policies. Additionally, parents received tips for navigating practical scenarios such as keeping photos of a child off of social media. The webinar highlighted FPF and National PTA’s Parent’s Guide to Student Data Privacy with additional tools and resources for parents.
Vance observed that policymakers’ recent focus on new restrictions for districts, schools, and edtech companies is shifting. “We now see fewer bills imposing more privacy protections, and more bills adding data sharing or ways of surveilling students that could potentially cause harm down the road,” Vance noted.
During the presentation, Vance pointed to a particularly concerning example of overly broad data sharing: Florida’s new “School Safety Portal.” In an effort to prevent school violence, the controversial portal allows school threat assessment teams to access students’ personal information, including whether a child is in foster care or has been bullied due to their disability or sexual orientation.
However, Vance cautioned: “We know that data is not relevant to whether or not a student is a threat, and so it has the potential to cause additional bias and harm students, instead of pointing out actual threats.” FPF and 32 other disability, privacy, education, and civil rights groups first sounded the alarm about this database in a July 2019 letter to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.