Disclosure of Student Personal Information on School Web Sites

Actions that school staff or students may take that would intrude upon the privacy of a student include posting the student’s name, class work, or a picture of the student on a district or school web site.

There are student privacy issues involved. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act standards are:

“Schools may disclose, without consent, “directory” information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, schools must tell parents and eligible students about directory information and allow parents and eligible students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them. Schools must notify parents and eligible students annually of their rights under FERPA. The actual means of notification (special letter, inclusion in a PTA bulletin, student handbook, or newspaper article) is left to the discretion of each school.”

Photographers also have to be careful about posting photographs of anyone, especially a child, if that photography was not taken in a public place. Schools are not public places. Generally schools also request permission of parents to use or publish or allow a news organization to capture any photographs of students.

CIPA is also involved: Under CIPA Internet Safety Plan must address the disclosure of personal information of students. (I) IN GENERAL.– In carrying out its responsibilities under subsection (h), each school … shall– (A) adopt and implement an Internet safety policy that addresses– … (iv) unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal identification information regarding minors. 47 U.S.C. §254 (I)(1)(A)(iv

Now, putting these two statutes together, CIPA’s “unauthorized” may be interpreted as “not authorized under FERPA.” Thus disclosure is authorized if the parent has failed to opt out of the directory information disclosure. But it is essential, under CIPA, that a district have a policy related to the disclosure of student information online.

My opinion is that relying on FERPA disclosure is not wise. Schools usually request permission to disclose student information in a form that is signed at the beginning of the year. This may be confusing for parents in the context of web disclosure. When parents see the term “directory information” they likely think use of the information in a student directory – to be taken home by other students and to be used to arrange play dates or car-pools. Some districts might think that because they have a parent’s signature on this FERPA director information document, they can also publish this information online. This may be legally accurate. But in the current climate, I do not think this is at all wise.

Parents are simply not very comfortable with disclosure of information about their children on the Internet, especially at the elementary school level. There has been some irresponsible fear-mongering that suggests that predators are tracking down children based on personal information posted online. But no one can point to an actual incident where this has occurred. Nonetheless, parents might fear this is a possibility and be very concerned that a school has posted information that could allow an online sexual predator to track down their child. The very last thing a district will want is to have to deal with this kind of issue in the community. Therefore, regardless of what FERPA might allow a district to do with directory information, the prudent school district will develop more restrictive regulations related to disclosure of student information on the Internet.

Districts should make a specific request of parents related to disclosure of material and information on the district web site. Districts should also demonstrate the same courtesy to staff. There may be some very good reasons for some staff members to wish not to have their identity disclosed online. For example, there may be a staff member who has escaped a domestic violence situation.

The most practical approach is for the district to determine what student information is safe, reasonable, and appropriate in accord with the instructional goals for elementary school students, middle school students, and high school students and their community standards. This set of school level disclosure standards can then be provided to parents with the option to approve or disapprove.

I recommend the use of a “student identifier” – that does not disclose a student’s full name – in elementary school. So my son could have had a student identifier of JJWill in elementary school.

But a high school should be able to disclose full names, with permission. It is a bit illogical to have the online school newspaper report such things as “Jordan scored the willing goal” (my son was high scoring JV soccer ;-)) or “Mary, Sue, and Matt have received scholarships to the state university.” By high school age, students should be well versed in online safety skills, so that such disclosure should not present concerns. Parents who have concerns still have the option of not granting approval. Middle school is a bit of a toss-up. Either the elementary or high school standard could to offered – depending on the community.

The following are a set of recommended standards:

For students in elementary and middle school: Students will use a student identifier that does not disclose the student’s full name. Group pictures without identification of individual students are permitted. Student work may be posted with the student identifier.

For students in high school: Students may be identified by their full name. Group or individual pictures of students with student identification are permitted. Student work may be posted with student name.

There have been some reported incidents where a teacher has independently posted student information, pictures, and/or work on their own personal web site. In one incident that was privately reported to the author, the teacher defended his actions by claiming he had a First Amendment right to post such information. Teachers have no rights to post information about minors without permission of their parent. All teachers should understand this.


2 responses to “Disclosure of Student Personal Information on School Web Sites

  1. Could you address the legal issues of posting pictures inside password protected online courses in which only the student’s teacher, school staff, and other high school students enrolled in that course can actually log in to the course and see the picture? In other words, it would be on the “internet” but not be publicly available…

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