Seattle Education

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My testimony to the Seattle School Board about FERPA (& student privacy)

An incident earlier this year in which the private contact information of 10,700 Seattle public school children and 1,400 teachers got passed along from the school district’s database to a political marketing firm prompted a group of parents to investigate this breach of privacy and formally request that the school district change its policy regarding FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). Here is what I said to the Seattle School Board and superintendent on Oct. 6, 2010.

I am an SPS parent and co-editor of the Seattle Education 2010 blog.

Tonight I’d like to address concerns about how well the district safeguards our children’s private information.

At the beginning of every school year, our kids come home with stacks of papers and forms for us to read and sign.

I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to one in particular  – the FERPA form.

I advise parents to read this carefully.

This form asks parents and guardians for permission to share our children’s private information with other people or organizations like universities, military recruiters, or anyone who asks.

Many of us have a number of concerns with this form and would like to request changes to the district’s policy to ensure the greater safety of our children.

First of all, we would like to change the form from an opt-out to an opt-in form.

The way it is now, if a family fails to return the form – it if gets lost or never makes it home — the district interprets that as a default parental consent to sharing this information. We believe that is wrong.

Second, if parents sign YES to this form, it allows the district to share the private directory information of our children with anyone who requests it. This raises a number of concerns.

Here’s what personal student info that can include:

Parent/guardian and student name, home address, home phone number, email address, student photo or video,  date of birth, grade level, enrollment status, height and weight of athletes, most recent school or program attended, and other information that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed.”

It’s hard to imagine how the release of a child’s photo, e-mail address, birthdate, height and weight to a complete stranger could not amount to “an invasion of privacy” or potentially lead to some kind of harm.

Many of us parents are troubled that this information should be released at all.

Thirdly, anyone can ask for and get this info. The district does not require that anyone state their purpose, it does not do a criminal background check.  All a person needs to do is sign a Declaration of Noncommercial Use.

Many of us are not okay with that.  We would like the district to severely restrict what information it releases and to whom, limiting it to known organizations with legitimate purposes.

Earlier this year, a number of parents and teachers were disturbed to discover that the private contact information of 10,700 Seattle public school children and 1,400 teachers was passed on to a political marketing company, DMA Marketing/Strategies 360.

The information was requested by the Alliance for Education and Schools First. Both passed the info onto a third party.

We believe that passing along private student information to a third party should be forbidden.

For a fuller account on what happened in this instance, please see my the article on our blog called “Should the School District Be Allowed to Give our Kids’ Phone Number, Addresses and Photos to Every Tom, Dick or Pollster?”

Modern technology and the internet have made it very easy for information to fall into questionable even dangerous hands.

There are too many loopholes in the district’s FERPA policy that leave our children vulnerable. We would like to see those loopholes closed.

We believe the district should err on the side of our children’s privacy and safety.

We have entrusted you with our children and their private information. You need to do a better job of safeguarding both.

Thank you.

— sue p.

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