School district at work amidst election

To the Editor:

While everyone was consumed with the presidential election, the Bedford school district was developing a policy to strengthen privacy protections for students.

In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Education weakened the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The change allowed third-party vendors to access confidential information on students.

In January 2012, the Education Department and the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy created the Education Data Initiative. The goal according to the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was for states to, "build comprehensive systems that track students from pre-K through college and then link school data to workforce data. "

The Electronic Privacy Information Center said this about the intrusion: "The Education Data Initiative reflects a growing trend with student data: government agencies are taking personal information that students are required to provide, skirting federal regulations, and turning student data over to the private sector with few, if any, safeguards for privacy and security."

This set off a wave of
concern by privacy experts, parents and legislators across the country. Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was so alarmed that he drafted federal legislation to shore up the poor record of student data management at school systems nationwide.

Schools are turning to third-party, cloud-based services to manage student records and for use in the classroom. According to a 2013 Fordham University study, 95 percent of school districts use an outside, cloud-based service. But only 7 percent sign contracts forbidding these education companies from selling the students’ personal data.

From Google spying on students, data-breaches and nefarious individuals releasing private student data, this is becoming a greater threat. Fortunately for parents in Bedford, our local school board members requested a task force to look at the problem and make suggestions for a policy.

A few teachers, the superintendent, a school board member and a few of us who live in Bedford met for several weeks. We looked at state and federal laws, the applications students use and potential problems. We had to balance the amount of extra work that would be required when students download an app, with the rights of parents who want to ensure their child’s privacy is being protected. We presented the final recommendations to the board a few weeks ago. I think we all felt that what we were presenting would result in a good policy for the district.

Is this policy perfect? Maybe not. There may be a need to strengthen the policy at some point, but this is a good start.

Parents need to look carefully at all of the apps that are downloaded on their child’s phone or school issued device. The school is trying hard to protect their personal information, but if your child has their own cellphone with apps included, they are at risk for giving away personal information. It’s also good to look at the privacy policy on all the apps they are using for school. Look to see if their data is destroyed at some point. What happens if the vendor is sold to another company? Does the privacy policy change?

Data is collected at the state level too. Some parents are now requesting to see all information collected and stored on their children.

Finally, state standardized assessments collect personal information on students and send it to the Federal Government. Parents have a couple of options here; they can refuse to let their children take the tests or review all of the personal questions that are included. When the assessment includes personal questions on your family, etc., New Hampshire law requires the school district to post those questions on their web site ten days prior to distribution and notify you. (RSA 186:11 IX-d)

The Bedford school board members and Superintendent Chip McGee deserve a great deal of gratitude for working on behalf of students and parents in the district.

Ann Marie Banfield