WikiLeaks may spread internal diplomatic communications and other sensitive government documents with impunity. But release educational documents to the public and they will be in serious trouble.
The Federal Educational Record Privacy Act of 1974, called “FERPA” in school circles, tightly restricts communication of school records.
For K-12 students, school records are only accessible to the parents and student, as well as staff who are in a professional need-to-know position such as counselors, school accrediting agents, etc. With narrow exceptions, school records cannot be released without the consent of the parent (or student if over age 18).
Basic directory information can be released but the parent of a K-12 student can request that their child’s directory information be withheld. Such requests are uncommon; it would mean that the student’s name would not be included in public honor rolls, etc.
College students are also covered by FERPA. There is one big difference for such students over 18 and not claimed by their parents as a federal tax exemption: parents are no longer allowed access to their student’s educational record without written permission from the student. Call up a professor to see how your student is doing in class and you will not get an answer.
The educational records held in central files by a public school or university registrar are clearly protected records. But what about individual quizzes, a student’s piece of art work, etc.?
In the court case of Owasso v. Falvo, parents challenged a teacher’s practice of having students switch-and-grade papers, contending it was a violation of FERPA. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court found this was not prohibited by FERPA. Although their ruling was narrowly targeted at switch-and-grade, they indicated educational records are “institutional records kept by a single central custodian, such as a registrar, not individual assignments handled by many student graders in their separate classrooms.”
So what about teachers’ e-mail and social network discussions about individual named students or classes? Recent incidents clearly show that general e-mails, FaceBook, and other electronic communications are wide-open public media. And e-mails made from school computers can be subpoenaed in lawsuits, child custody hearings, and by a school administration.
Communication of identifiable student information is unprofessional. Simply, teacher’s should not talk about student information they know from their positions as teachers when they are away from school.
If there is a weakness in the educational privacy system, it is the ever-more-glitzy school online systems being developed so that the 70 percent of parents with internet-connected home computers can track their child’s daily academic progress. If there was money involved, these systems would already be hacked.
But references requested online by prospective employers and higher schools have secured the student’s permission and are usually well-secured. Otherwise, anything written in e-mail or for social networks should be considered to be public, as if it was posted on a billboard on the nearest interstate.
So if you always wondered what grade point averages Presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush earned in school—well, you are not going to find out.