Warwick school officials are attempting to work out how to navigate a brave new world of student privacy issues, as changes to how the district solicited responses to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) resulted in over half the district’s students having certain restrictions on what information could be released about them – including, most importantly for the Beacon’s purposes, images and videos.
The simplified explanation of FERPA is that it is a federal law intended to protect the privacy rights of students by allowing parents to opt out of schools releasing students records or “directory information” – things like their name, address, inclusion on honor rolls and pictures taken by agents of the school – by signing a form and returning it to a school at the beginning of a school year. If the child is 18 or older, they can make the decision for themselves.
Warwick has traditionally sent these forms out annually in a printed form that needs to be mailed back or directly handed in. Normally, between 20 and 30 students in a given year – the district has over 8,000 students – that, for various reasons, opt out of the release of certain personal information by their parents.
However, this year the district did things a bit differently. In an effort to streamline the FERPA process with other registration activities, an electronic form was sent to all parents in the district with 13 options – each corresponding to a different type of directory information, from names to information that could potentially be sent to military recruiters – and two options without explanations attached: “Release” or “Do not release.”
Doug Alexander, technology director for Warwick Public Schools, and Superintendent Philip Thornton must have done a double take when they saw the information rolling in from those surveys. Over 50 percent of the student body opted out of having photos of themselves being released, and as many as 65 percent of the students had been opted out of certain fields.
“It was just a shocking number,” Alexander said. “It was really stunning and not what we expected at all.”
Alexander said that the district should have been clearer about what the various options actually meant if the parents clicked the “Do not release” button, and said they should have put more information on the page to explain the intricacies of the FERPA law. He has since sent out a revised form to parents allowing them to change their initial responses.
As of press time, 350 people had sent in that updated form to revise their opt-out status, 349 of which changed their response to giving the district permission to share information. Still, Alexander sees the situation as a learning experience and an important one.
“I don't see it as a negative,” he said. “I see it as we're talking about how to keep students safe and how to better handle their privacy on a daily basis. That does not seem like a bad thing to me.”
The situation has brought to light what is an issue that is likely to generate much more attention in the coming years, as matters related to data collection and sharing are brought more to the forefront of dialogue and data-driven, conglomerate corporations like Google and Facebook continue to ingrain themselves into every aspect of social society – whether at home, at work or at school.
“It's a shared responsibility and it's one we have to take seriously,” Alexander said. “We are on the bow wave of a trend here where as this student privacy issue becomes more front and center. We'd rather be ahead of this rather than reacting.”
Aubrey Lombardo, an education attorney who works on behalf of the Warwick School Department, agreed.
“Certainly in Warwick at the moment, yes [student privacy is becoming a bigger issue],” she said. “But even just with social media and schools trying to engage the community in different ways through different platforms, yes, student privacy has become a more prominent issue.”
According to Lombardo, the dramatic increase in the number of opt-outs has already opened up possible liability issues at least once.
When the Beacon was preparing its school committee candidate forum at Pilgrim High School, there was talk of potentially live streaming the forum via Facebook Live to hopefully enable more people to tune in. As it could not be determined if students who had been opted out of having their images released would show up to the forum and wind up on camera, the idea was scrapped out of an abundance of caution.
In a previous addition, a photo of a student was left unused because it could not be determined in time whether or not the student had photo release permission – although it likely would have been outside the purview of FERPA since the student was off school property at the time, but engaged in a school activity.
Lombardo said that students participating in public events, such as sporting events or events occurring off school grounds, would only be covered by FERPA if a school employee – known under the law as an “agent” of the school – took a photo of a student who opted out and released it to the media or published it on their own social media. Since newspapers are not agents of the schools, the rules for newspaper purposes are less well defined, and Lombardo said more due diligence was important.