Ask Your Kid’s School These Essential Student Privacy and Safety Questions

Get assurance that your kid’s school is doing everything it can to protect privacy and keep student data safe. By Caroline Knorr
Ask Your Kid’s School These Essential Student Privacy and Safety Questions

Some schools use a little technology: a few educational apps to mix things up, maybe a weekly trip to the computer lab. Some use a lot: one-to-one device programs, class management systems, and automated grade-reporting. Many districts are even adopting schoolwide networks with names you'll recognize, such as Google Classroom and the Facebook-engineered Summit Learning System. Time will tell if all this technology better prepares students for a digital world. But one thing is true: If it's digital, it uses data, and that means your kid's information is more valuable -- and more vulnerable -- than ever. Schools need to safeguard student privacy as fiercely as a mama bear -- and you, as the parent, need to know how they're doing it. Here are the right questions to ask, and the answers you should expect, to make sure any tech your kid uses at school is protecting your kid's privacy.

How does the school decide if the educational software or apps it uses protect my kid's privacy?

Your kid's school should review the privacy policies of any software or device that requires your kid to log in with a screen name and password. You can ask for a copy of the product's privacy policy, or you can talk to the teacher or your principal to get assurances that they know what they're doing.

What you should hear in the school's answer:

  • Stored data is encrypted, password protected, and only available to certain administrators who need it for educational purposes. Ask who that person is.
  • Companies don't collect more information than they need for educational purposes -- and those reasons are clearly and narrowly defined. Keep an eye out for requests for personal information that don't seem relevant to education (for example, your religious beliefs).
  • Companies don't trade or sell student info to others. If you suspect your kid's information has been sold (because you're receiving ads in the mail, etc.), notify your school administrator.
  • More than one person (for example, a teacher, administrator, and an IT professional) reviews the companies' policies. Ask for their names in case you need them.

Even better: The company supplying the software has undergone some sort of third-party vetting or evaluation process -- such as the evaluation offered by Common Sense Media's Privacy Initiative. The list of companies and software used is frequently updated and accessible to parents and students. Find out where the list is.

What information does the school collect and how is it stored?

Schools need to offer a clear educational purpose for any personal information it asks for. (Social Security numbers are an example of information many schools have collected in the past, but not any longer because they couldn't justify the educational purpose of collecting that data.)

What you should hear in the school's answer:

  • The school asks for basic identification only -- for example, name, address, and phone number.
  • The school encrypts any information it receives and uses security procedures to protect any data in transit. That means no one can read the information without authorized security clearance and a password. Ask how they do this.

Even better: The school restricts access to information solely to those who need to know it -- for example, only a school nurse has access to medical information, via passwords, technical controls, or other physical safeguards. The school deletes information once it is no longer needed for your kid's education or required to be kept by state or federal law. Ask exactly when your kid’s information will be deleted.

Who can get access to the school's list of students and their contact information?

Federal law limits who can get access to a school's directory of basic stuff like your kid's name, address, telephone number, and other general information.

What you should hear in the school's answer:

  • Schools comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) by notifying parents of any information that they collect and what directory information includes, as well as providing parents the choice to to opt out.
  • The method of notification is up to the school, so ideally they should use methods that will get your attention, such as a letter sent home that you have to sign. Ask how they notify parents: by email, a letter home, etc.?
  • Ideally, schools offer easily accessible and flexible opt-in and opt-out consent options -- not merely one blanket form that opts you into, or out of, everything.
  • Some schools offer a checklist that lets you choose which information to share with which third parties. For example, you may feel comfortable sharing your student's name and address with the developer of your kid's reading software application, but you may not feel comfortable sharing your student’s dates of attendance.
  • Or even though the school is allowed to share directory information with your kid's after-school program, it gives you the option not to. Ask how your school manages distributing this information.

Even better: Under FERPA, schools are actually allowed to disclose certain directory information without your consent. A yearbook publisher, a class-ring manufacturer, and military recruiters are a few examples of outside organizations to which the school can send directory information. But some of this information is fairly personal, including place of birth, honors, awards, and dates of attendance. A school that's being careful will ask for consent before disclosing this or any other information. Ask if your school does this.

When do I need to provide consent for my student to use software at school?

Schools are allowed to provide consent on behalf of parents when they're using an app that collects information solely for educational purposes, such as an app that helps teachers take attendance. The school, the district, or an authorized teacher should ask parents to provide consent if any software or applications used in the classroom will collect information from students that's not for an exclusively educational purpose. When parental consent is requested the notice to parents should include how they can provide consent and what practices they are consenting to.

What you should hear in the school's answer:

  • Schools should notify parents, for example as a list on their webpage, of all educational software that the school has consented to students using, what data it's collecting, how the data is used, and how the data is protected.
  • Schools should generally not ask for parental consent as a way to limit their own liability. When schools ask for consent, the school should have verified beforehand that the software is safe and that there is no safer or non-commerical alternative that could substitute for that software.

Even better: Schools ask for consent when they use educational products that are not essential. For example, if a student could learn a concept using an existing math worksheet rather than playing a digital math game -- and the teacher wouldn't have to create a worksheet specifically for that student -- the game is likely not essential. In that case it's nice if schools want to give parents the option to consent or not.

What's the school's policy on Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)?

BYOD programs are a lower-cost way for schools to integrate technology into the classroom. But tablets and laptops store a lot of sensitive information, including personal data (name, address, etc.), raw data such as performance reports, and "cookies" -- the personal identifiers that track your student’s path around the internet. Also, many students may not have reliable broadband internet access at home in which to complete online assignments, so BYOD should be used in conjunction with other programs at school.

What you should hear in the school's answer:

Even better: The school has a written process about device searches (which includes notifying you before the device is searched). Schools should ideally not install monitoring software, track the device's location, or remotely access the camera on a student's personal device. Be aware though that schools are required to monitor their internet networks under federal law, and some student data may be collected through that monitoring. Ask who within the school and district can access any device-specific tracking information and when this information is deleted.

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About Caroline Knorr

As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more

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