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Students Have Privacy Rights, Too

Sandra Fulton,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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May 24, 2011

Schools collect a wealth of information on students. Some of this—such as grades, discipline problems, and household income—makes sense for educators to collect and can be vital to the protection of civil rights. Some—such as pregnancy, mental health, victimization, and criminal histories—is excessive. But under proposed rules from the Obama administration, all of it is about to be shared much more widely.

As part of the its accountability in education agenda, the Obama administration has proposed new rules that would allow school administrators to circumvent the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and share students’ personal information with other state officials and private entities for broad spectrum of activities. And they could do so without consent from either the student or his or her parents.

Under the new rules, personal student information could be shared with state officials not working directly on education and placed in state database with non-education records. Private entities – like test preparation centers or preschools – would be able to access school records they want to evaluate for their education programs. Ultimately, if this expansion continues we could soon see this information being shared between states, resulting in a database of sensitive information of most Americans. Again – none of this would require consent of parents or students.

In addition to the obvious privacy harm – who wants faceless bureaucrats or private companies knowing if you cheated on a test or got sent to the principal? – expanding access to educational records is almost certain to lead to an increase in the number of student records that are lost or misused. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which monitors data breaches, 8,584,571 student records have been lost from 543 different breaches since 2005. In the past three months alone we have seen stories of thousands of student’s records being compromised in New York, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas. The more people who handle this incredibly sensitive information, the more likely these records will be vulnerable to either negligence or hackers. We have some suggestions for how the administration can protect civil rights and privacy.

Evaluation of student performance and education outcomes are important goals. However the sharing of personal information must be sharply limited and results should generally be limited to non-identifiable information. Because these proposed rules share so much more personally identifiable information on students they pose serious privacy concerns. The administration must revise its proposed rule sharply limit the sharing of information, or we risk our private education files becoming an open book.

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