PHILADELPHIA — On the last day of this year's International Society for Technology in Education conference, state education department leaders and board members discussed the implications of stringent student privacy laws at a time when gathering sensitive information has become commonplace and central to school safety.
Moderator and Future of Privacy Forum’s Policy Counsel Sara Collins sat down with FPF’s Director of Education Privacy Amelia Vance, Louisiana Department of Education’s Ed tech Director Kim Nesmith, and Utah Board of Education’s Student Data Privacy Trainer Greg Cox to address how school leaders can begin to navigate policy and parent concerns surrounding the collection of student data. Over the course of the conversation, they tackled a number of topics around the issue.
Why is it important to be aware of your state’s data privacy laws?
Kim Nesmith, Louisiana Department of Education ed tech, pointed out that there have been rapid changes in technology nationwide, leading to different tools and solutions available to protect student data. At the same time, she said, hundreds of school safety bills and guidelines across safety commissions, boards and state legislatures are being circulated, some of which push for increased student surveillance.
Some measures, such as the ones adopted in Florida, don’t necessarily make the classroom any safer, and many state departments of education don’t provide correct or enough guidance, she said. For this reason, Nesmith stressed, educators must keep a vigilant eye on the current relevant policy and how it can be best adopted to suit students’ needs.
Greg Cox, a student data privacy trainer for the Utah Board of Education, added that departments are spending an increasing amount on school safety and pushing for new practices such as information databases, which would aggregate information on students to parse out potential threats.
With these changes, Cox said, it is vital to work with state legislatures and school personnel to ensure rights are protected and “privacy is at the forefront of their minds.”
What should leaders consider when making school safety and tech decisions?
“It all boils down to data governance,” Nesmith said during the session. She listed five major areas school leaders should focus on to adopt good data governance practices.
- Read and understand state laws and what the policies require from schools.
- Put into place threat assessment teams.
- Provide teachers and staff with training so they can home in on best practices and de-escalation techniques.
- Put into place strong protocols and response plans to follow in case of a threat.
- Determine who has access to the sensitive data informing these decisions.
Cox also stressed the importance of understanding applicable laws, as they vary across states, and their implications on data sharing, as there can be hefty consequences associated with failing to comply. He also pointed out that while law enforcement is often looked at as the ultimate enforcer of the law, “you don’t have to give everything up to law enforcement just because they are asking.”
This means that if a law enforcement agency requests information on a student, it is not always necessary for school personnel to share that information and that doing so can actually result in consequences for the school.
Amelia Vance, the director of education for the Future of Privacy Forum, added that it is vital for school leaders involved in the policymaking and implementation process to ask the right questions. Among them: How long will data be kept? Who will have access to it? How can you make sure privacy guardrails are built into the law?
How can leaders best communicate changes or safety concerns with parents?
“Transparency with parents is key,” Cox said, suggesting school leaders work with advisory groups at the state level, which include parents, to form relationships built on transparency and cooperation. He also said it is important for leaders to train and inform teachers on the policy and practices, since teachers are often the school personnel directly in contact with parents.
Vance also reinforced this point, but added that holding community meetings with parents after the state provides direction could go a long way in nipping potential problems in the bud. It is important to determine how districts can take steps without compromising what communities are comfortable with, she said.
What can increased tech use in security mean for the future of schools?
“We are moving toward trying to adopt technology more and more,” Vance said. In the process, she fears human connection will be lost. She pointed out that resources for students like counselors and teachers can do much more for school safety and mental health than technology, but that schools are becoming increasingly invested in just the technology aspect.
“If data governance isn’t adopted at this step in the process, you could have backlash,” she said.
With students taking home more technology provided by schools, the line of where the school day ends and begins is also becoming blurred. When monitoring and filtering systems are put in place for those school computers, the lines become even more unclear. As a result, Cox predicts schools will have to take on more accountability and precautions in the long-run.