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Are your child's privacy and data at school safe?

As parents are asked to read and sign a number of forms this back-to-school season, they should pay special attention to FERPA if they want to keep their kids' information private.

Another school year begins. For kids, it's time for a few new school supplies, new classes, and new friends. For parents? It's time for permission slips to sign and other forms to read and fill out. Among them will be notices parents see year after year about FERPA.

What's FERPA, you ask? Good question. It's an important federal law designed to help keep information about your child private. Here's what you need to know about it and what we're doing to help make FERPA relevant in the digital age.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was passed in 1974 to protect access to and privacy of student education records. At the time, this meant students and their parents were given access to a student's "education record" and could amend records that were incorrect. FERPA also set rules about when a student's records could be shared by schools.

But while "education records" have changed a lot since then -- with the internet, digital record keeping, and cloud storage -- FERPA hasn't. In fact, 2002 was the last time Congress updated it, and that's a problem. In 1974 (and even 2002), Congress didn't envision schools' current reliance on computers, apps, and mobile devices. FERPA needs to be updated to make sure that school-based student and family privacy protections keep up with technological trends.

Common Sense has long been recognized for its advocacy and advice about children's online privacy -- in school and out. So we're gearing up to assist Congress in fixing FERPA. And here's one recommendation for starters: Clarify that FERPA's definition of "education records" includes students' online activity, such as web searches and the creation of online profiles. Right now, the law is vague about what it covers, as "education records" is only defined as records that are "directly related to a student" and "maintained by an educational agency" or someone acting on its behalf.

Given the vast amount of online information collected from students today, FERPA should ensure that this information, like any other student information, is appropriately and clearly protected.

Enjoy this exciting time in your child's life, and sign up to be a Kids Action advocate today to stay tuned for more on our efforts to help make sure your child's online life is dynamic and educational -- but also safe and secure.

Emily Catron