A privacy maze
We moved. We left our beloved Brooklyn for a new State to call home. Moving means not just a new house but new routines, new friends and new schools! And as excited and anxious as the kids were to start in new schools, well, so was I. The schools are great, we’re slowly making new friends and we’re getting to know the school system. It’s vastly different than New York City, that’s for sure. Technology is more accessible and all schools have online portals for parents. There is an integrated platform that allows me to login and look at my children’s personal information, grades, attendance, homework assignments and teachers’ notes about my kids. Mind you, they are in two different schools. I log in to one system. This is so much more than we had in NYC so I should have been happy, ecstatic actually. But I wasn’t.
For starters, no one asked if I wanted to partake in this online system. A few weeks before school started I began receiving emails about the schools. I am glad to be receiving important information, but felt rather uneasy by the fact that my email and my children’s information was provided to a third party without my knowledge. Further, this application connects to other platforms that collect my children’s information. For example, there is an online school lunch system, school garb shopping portal, bus routes and of course, the school’s directory. All of these collect, at a minimum, parent names, student names and school they are enrolled in. And I do want to be clear, I am not so concerned about the information collected as the way it was released. I was surprised when I received a FERPA notice to opt out of directory information. I received an email from the school district, clicked on the link, logged on to the portal and opted out. But here is the issue, the login for the portal was already populated with my children’s information and had been done without my knowledge. This lack of disclosure is not optimal to build trust between schools, parents and third party vendors. An email informing me would have been enough. And that is why communication is key to building trust when it comes to student data and privacy. Trust can’t be built if a school district can’t be bothered with informing families that this information is collected and placed in an online portal for third parties to use, and then sends a link to the FERPA notice. After I logged in, I diligently looked for the portal’s privacy policies. I am still looking for them. If they are published, they are in such an obscure link on their website that I had to give up after three days of searching.
But it doesn’t have to be that difficult. There are a few simple things that schools and vendors can do to build trust with parents and students. They ought to list all the vendors that work with the schools, list the data that is provided to these vendors, and a clear and easy to link to their privacy policies. I looked at both the online portal and the district’s website and couldn’t find this information. I understand that schools have many things to work on and that the beginning of the school year is particularly hectic, but these lists are basic and should not be a heavy lift for any school district. Transparency builds trust and accurate information can help dispel many fears parents have when it comes to student data and their privacy.
With the attention being given to student privacy and technology I hope that schools shift their focus a bit and realize that this is important information to make accessible to parents. I would also hope that the tech companies providing this service have clear and easy to understand privacy policies so that parents can make informed decisions.
We like to put the responsibility of student data privacy on school districts and tech companies, but it is also our responsibility to look for privacy policies and understand how data is being used in schools. If we can’t get the information easily we should reach out to the school and ask for the information. So as I am now buying school supplies, the question arises – should I go to a store and physically buy the school supplies, or order them online through a school portal that will collect my credit card information in addition to the other data previously gathered.
We are in a privacy maze, it seems, but it is up to us to call out school districts, tech vendors and demand they make their privacy policies transparent so parents can understand what they’re signing up for.