#edtech for #IT: FERPA

Most IT professionals are familiar with the need to keep data secure. In schools, the importance of privacy takes on special importance. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is law in the United States which is intended to safeguard sensitive information about children in schools. While there are some types so information that are not protected by FERPA, the best rule of thumb for those who work in schools is to avoid sharing information you learn about students while at work.  

FERPA even protects information school employees learn accidently. For example, a school employee who shares with someone else, “I saw Johnny get in a fight at school today and they were suspended,” has violated FERPA as they shared information about a student’s behavior and the consequences of it.  

IT professionals have an unusual level of access to classrooms and data. When an IT professional is in a classroom and sitting at a computer, they are “a fly on the wall.” Teachers and students largely proceed as if there is no one else there. They gain an unfiltered view of classroom actions and interactions. IT professionals are often in a situation in which they may have access to information that is protected by FERPA such as a student’s grades. While the student information system should have protections to prevent a technician from accessing grades, a teacher may ask for help resolving a technology issue when they are logged in to systems. 

What one observes in data systems, classrooms, and schools must be kept confidential; the teacher who shows students’ grades to an IT technician to while getting help has violated. The IT technician who does not share that information with anyone or who does not treat the student differently has not violated FERPA. They have minimized the damage done by the original violation and they have not violated FERPA themselves. The one exception, of course, is if there are situations that are unsafe or potentially troubling. IT professionals have the same responsibility as anyone, especially adults, to prevent and report those situations. Expect that you will be expected to participate in FERPA training every year you are employed in a school.