In this age of measureless digital information and ubiquitous electronic access, it’s important for educators, including school librarians, to be aware of the 3 Federal laws governing student rights and privacy, especially regarding online access:
- FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, has been around since 1974. It’s purpose is to protect the privacy of a student’s education records. It’s impact on us as educators is that it gives us permission to publish student work and photos, but without last names or any personally identifiable information.
Between September and December of 2016, the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) conducted focus groups regarding teacher training on student privacy. They discovered that, while schools and districts encourage the use of technology applications, there is wide variation on vetting what teachers can use in their classrooms, with ‘free’ resources often left to the teacher’s discretion. With that in mind, it’s especially important for educators to consider COPPA.
- COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, took effect in 2000, and forbids websites from collecting personal information from children under the age of 13 unless they obtain verifiable parental permission. It’s why websites ask for birth dates to create an account and many refuse to create one if the applicant is under age 13 (so they don’t have to verify parent permission). In rulings since 2013, personal information also includes videos, audio files, and geolocation that can identify a child. (NOTE: COPPA is not COPA, the Act regarding pornography that never became law.)
COPPA also allows under-age-13 students to use secured online services contracted by the state/district, such as Gaggle student email or Google for Education apps. Also, COPPA permits schools to act as “agents” for parents, which means they can get signed permission slips from parents so students can register for a public online service—if you do this, be sure your school/district has written parent permission! (I vehemently discourage students from using a fake birth year to create online accounts—it’s breaking the law! My online Library Lessons for below-8g students only use contract services or public sites that don’t need them to create accounts.)
- CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, enacted in 2000 and administered by the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission, covers the e-rate discount for schools; it requires filters against harmful content and restricts disclosure of a minor’s personal information. CIPA was augmented by the Broadband Data Improvement Act (2008) and by the FCC (2011) to incorporate the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act-Subtitle A: Promoting a Safe Internet for Children. Those direct the FTC to create a national public awareness campaign about safe Internet use by children and requires schools to educate students about Internet safety, including student privacy.
School Libraries and Student Privacy
Most educators think of student privacy in terms of student grades or publishing class photos, but a school librarian must approach student privacy in a unique way because student privacy is inextricably linked with intellectual freedom and freedom to access information.
- Intellectual freedom is the right to freely publish personal creations in any media format. Should we treat a child’s intellectual freedom for expression the same as we would an adult’s? Just as we monitor the language (verbal and written) and the behavior of young ones in our schools, so too, educators often act in loco parentis to constrain public products that reflect inappropriate youthful expressions; however, we need to be careful that our “editing” of blog posts, webpages, videos, and other online products is truly monitoring and not censorship.
- Freedom of access is a person’s right to obtain and read, view, or listen to media without restraint, and this includes what students choose from the school library. Student privacy protects this right, so librarians do not divulge any of the books a student has checked out, except to a parent. (To protect student privacy, my district’s library automation system only keeps track of current checkouts—once an item is returned, it’s removed from the student’s record!) Conversely, school librarians have a responsibility to choose print & online resources that support the state/district curriculum, so we are in the precarious position of using negative selection policies, not necessarily as filtering or censorship, but because funds must be spent advantageously according to the age and literacy of students.
- Filtering freedom of access for a child depends on where the access takes place. In a public library all information is available to the general public, and, while resources are organized to minimize psychological danger to children, it is necessarily the parent’s duty, not the library’s, to monitor what the child reads, hears or views. The situation changes in the public school setting: schools are regarded as in loco parentis to act for the best interests of the child, and CIPA law requires filtering of online access for schools to qualify for a discounted e-rate.
A nation’s laws can restrict content only in that country; filters can block content no matter where it comes from on the Web. Most important, filters block content for users who object to it without removing the material from the Web. It remains available to those who want to see it. (p.125) An individual clearly has the personal right to filter anything that comes at him, just as he would do with regular mail. (p.134)
Teaching Internet Safety & Student Privacy
Striking a balance between productive online classroom activities and keeping students’ safe online can be a challenge, especially inculcating into students the need to protect their privacy. I discovered that, while schools are required by CIPA to teach Internet Safety, the U.S. government provides FREE materials with which to do so. All government information falls under public domain so we can use it however we wish. The FTC’s Internet safety website—onguardonline.gov—provides videos and materials for presentations, as well as free handouts such as booklets, brochures, and worksheets, which can be ordered from their website. The Department of Homeland Security’s Stop-Think-Connect campaign also provides free materials on their website—dhs.gov/stopthinkconnect. I use different handouts for each grade level, and at the start of every school year I order enough copies for all the students in my school.
I reiterate, these materials are free, so I encourage you to order them, as well as other free materials provided by government-sponsored organizations, such as the National Cyber Security Alliance at staysafeonline.org, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at netsmartz.org, and Common Sense Media at commonsensemedia.org. All 5 websites have valuable pointers on how to teach online safety to various ages of children, resources to use in presentations, and videos and games for different age groups.
At the start of each school year, my first 6g lesson using online resources helps students generate a password that will protect their privacy. StaySafeOnline has a wonderful lesson about this, along with free posters to hang in the library and computer labs: CyberSmart! Classroom Materials: Password Security Activity and Posters
Throughout the school year I have Library Lessons on Internet safety and student privacy related to whatever online activity we are pursuing. Additionally, October is National Cyber Security Month, sponsored by the Dept. of Homeland Security, and January 28 is Data Privacy Day, both of which offer opportunities for school librarians to focus the entire school on Internet Safety. My Internet Safety Lessons with my middle school students address 3 different issues, one of which is Student Privacy. My privacy lesson for 6g focuses on protecting personal information when using the WWW:
For the student privacy part of the 7g lesson I use materials from the FTC, beginning with a video, Net Cetera: Protection Connection, and then focusing students’ blossoming social awareness on socializing online.
The combination of a yearly whole-school Internet Safety month and short relevant lessons throughout the school year, all customized for any online tool being used and the maturity/grade level of students, provides my middle school students with an ongoing focus on, and a deep understanding of, Student Privacy issues. I believe they are well-prepared to safely navigate “The Cloud” and for the new challenges they’ll face in high school.