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It is that time of year again! Those of us with school-aged children have kitchen tables piled high with forms and permission slips. Schools request all sorts of information at the beginning of each year: medical histories, dental insurance, emergency contacts, allergies and more. They require parent signatures to administer aspirin, publish student photos in school publications and take our children on field trips.
Yet something critical is missing. There is no form educating parents about the increasing number of ways that schools invade our children’s privacy, and certainly no permission slips asking for our consent when they do.
...highly personal information about students could have been shared with private corporations that, in turn, could sell educational products back to the schools -- for a tidy profit.
It’s a growing threat. In Massachusetts and nationwide, schools are making decisions that threaten student privacy — from making student records available to third-party providers, to monitoring student on-line activity on campus and at home, to subjecting students to physical surveillance. Such actions are undertaken with a shocking lack of transparency, and parents repeatedly are left out of the loop. A “decide first, inform later — if ever” policy isn’t how schools should handle student privacy. Even worse, when privacy intrusions are revealed, students and their parents rarely have a choice to opt-out.
Last year, for example, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced that it would pilot test “inBloom,” a data collection program that gathers personally identifiable student information — potentially including names, grades, test scores and disciplinary records — in a digital “cloud.” Under the plan, such highly personal information about students could have been shared with private corporations that, in turn, could sell educational products back to the schools — for a tidy profit.
Parents weren’t going to be asked to give permission for their children’s data to be collected or turned over to these outside vendors. The proposed plan had no opt-out mechanism for parents and their children. It was the ACLU and other civil liberties groups -- not the schools — that alerted parents that the proposed plan could result in the sharing of their children’s sensitive information with private companies. Once educated about the ramifications of the plan, many parents were outraged — and the Massachusetts Department of Education changed course, announcing in March 2014 that it had no plans to move forward with inBloom.
What’s the lesson here? Transparency matters. The department backed off a program that threatened student privacy only after its decision was exposed to a robust public debate. In the future, such informed debate must take place before school districts make plans that implicate student privacy.
Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens. Already this school year, the Boston School Department suddenly announced that its school buses would be equipped with audio and video surveillance equipment. Again, the decision was made without input from parents or public discussion. After the ACLU spoke out and the Boston Globe published a scathing editorial criticizing the plan, the Boston Public School Department backed off on its effort to audio record children on school buses — at least for now. Constant surveillance of children sends precisely the wrong message to young people — namely, that they don’t and shouldn’t expect to live in a free society.
Educational policies that implicate student privacy are expanding as schools adopt online systems for homework and communication. The Boston Public Schools and many other schools now use Gmail as student email. That raises a host of troubling questions that remain unanswered. Do schools using Gmail have policies to prevent Google from using student data to build a lifelong profile of our children? Is there anything to prevent Google from using student profiles to carry over to other accounts when our children graduate?
West Springfield High School is providing Chromebooks to every student. But are parents aware that school officials assert that providing technology to students gives the school virtually unfettered authority to monitor student activity, both on and off school grounds?
Meanwhile, school districts across the commonwealth likely continue to eye cloud-based servers as an option to digitally store student information, raising questions about the access to, use of and security for this highly sensitive data.
Would parents be content to learn that officials are monitoring their child’s email messages?
Schools encourage parents to be knowledgeable, active participants in their children’s education, as they should. They seek informed parental consent for seemingly everything from the important to the mundane. Shouldn’t parents also have the opportunity to participate in a discussion about the possibility that their children’s disciplinary record may be purchased by a for-profit company? Don’t her parents deserve to be consulted before little Sam’s conversations about her friends and family are monitored and shared with school officials whenever she rides the bus? Would parents be content to learn that officials are monitoring their child’s email messages?
Technology can be an incredibly powerful educational tool. But it can also be wildly, and irreversibly, destructive. Children rely on adults to protect them, and we must. At a minimum, let’s require informed parental participation in these conversations before decisions are made that can damage our children’s privacy — and worse — for the rest of their lives.
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