When it comes to reporting education news, student privacy concerns should remain upmost in the reporter’s mind. In most states, as well as at the federal level, laws are in place to protect the privacy of student information, both about their educational needs and also regarding their discipline.
The major federal law regarding the privacy of student information is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This law limits access to a student’s information to school officials for school related purposes, to the student’s parents or legal guardians until the student turns 18 and to the student individually after age 18. According to information found on the U.S. Department of Education website, “Parents and students put their trust in the stewards of education data to ensure students’ personal information is properly safeguarded and is used only for legitimate purposes and only when absolutely necessary. The Department deeply values this trust and strives to ensure it is doing all it can do to protect the privacy of our students as the uses of their data to improve education increase.” The law seeks to provide these protections to American students and their families and applies to all areas of education: public or private; primary, secondary and post-secondary (colleges and universities).
In Texas, Government Code § 552.114 governs the privacy of student records. Chapter 552 of the Government Code is actually related to open records in the state, but student educational records are one exception to the open record requirements, basically eliminating the possibility of a reporter making a request under the Texas Open Records Act or the Freedom of Information Act.
“The reason for these privacy issues is we don’t want to give out any information of an address where someone may live,” said Juan Solis, PRIDE Academy Principal and Bullying and Peer Mediation Coordinator at Quinlan ISD and an education doctoral student. “We don’t know what other people’s ideas may be, what their thought process is or what may lead to a very, very traumatic incident. We don’t want to be responsible because we were the ones that gave out an address where an angry parent went to confront someone and something bad ended up happening.”
Solis said this is the reason Quinlan ISD policy is that information about a student is not given to anyone not on the student’s contact list, unless it has been requested by a law enforcement or child protective agency.
He also stated that most districts have policies in place that allow parents and guardians to opt-out of having student information, like honors and awards, and images submitted to the media, even to have those images and information barred from the district’s own website.
Solis said the severity of consequences for educators who violate student privacy protections is largely based on the nature of the breach and how severe an action parents take. He said they could range from a simple reprimand up to an educator having a teaching license revoked.
The basic thing, Solis said, is for educators at all levels, to remain professional in the interactions with students and parents and in the handling of student information.
“The advice that has been given to us by our professors and other professionals is, ‘If you think it could make headline news, you probably don’t need to do it.’”