Forum Guide to Protecting the Privacy of Student Information: State and Local Education Agencies

6.F. Release to Other Service Agencies

There are increasing needs for education and other service agencies to develop coordinated data systems that enable them to more effectively and efficiently serve children and their families. Many agencies, such as education, health, social service, and labor agencies, are seeking means to facilitate the automatic accessibility of information from student records. Cross-agency partnerships have been developed for streamlining services. Although they are limited by some practical, political, technical, and regulatory barriers, service providers and policy analysts agree that benefits and efficiencies can be gained from sharing data for at least these three well-defined purposes:

  • Providing children with supportive services—Counselors and health services providers may need information about an individual’s social, educational, and health status to diagnose a problem, and develop and implement a treatment plan. Records kept in schools (e.g., attendance information, family background, and reports of academic and behavioral achievements or problems) can contribute critical information for case planning and management. Some information may help law enforcement officials locate youth involved in the juvenile justice system who may need assistance or who may be a danger to themselves or those around them.
  • Increasing access to social and educational services—Sometimes agencies need to seek out or verify eligible program participants. Often there are children in schools whose families may not realize they are eligible for certain assistance (e.g., free or reduced-price lunch, health services, or welfare services) that is available through school or community agencies. Records of several service agencies may need to be cross-checked to increase the efficiency of deciding what services are available and to ensure those services reach the individuals who need them.
  • Conducting policy planning and evaluation studies—Student records that are part of an education agency’s administrative structure can inform statistical studies for improving management of services and evaluating outcomes. A start toward using integrated electronic records systems for management and outcomes evaluation is occurring in several states. In each instance, the state’s legislature has encouraged the development of integrated data systems to strengthen, evaluate, or manage integrated public services or to improve access to evaluation and planning information to support workforce development programs. Such systems emerge typically following an investment in consensus-building procedures that include members of all contributing agencies in planning. No exchange of information occurs until appropriate memoranda of agreement are in place, along with procedures for obtaining the consent of participating individuals or verifying that such consents are unnecessary, because no confidential or personally identifiable information is issued at the individual case level.

Education agencies are finding new ways to support services integration for students while they meet their legal and ethical obligations to restrict the release of information from student records. One way this occurs is for agencies to guide data sharing with well-defined policies for gaining consent to use records across agencies at the time that records are initially established. In general, information about students can be released only with the signed consent of parents or eligible students who have been told, in language they understand, what information is to be used across agencies, why, and how that sharing will occur. The following are strategies for protecting the confidentiality of information used across agencies:

  • Obtain legal advice to guide the process—The legal offices of the agencies can assist with the study of applicable federal and state laws, as well as establish a memorandum of understanding or an interagency agreement to confirm what data will be exchanged and how it will be used. They can also help ensure that agencies maintain records of what information has been shared and the authorization for sharing it. A thorough knowledge of the rationale behind federal, state, and local privacy laws, and an understanding of what the laws allow and disallow, are the building blocks of widely sought interagency data coordination.
  • Obtain prior written consent from parents or eligible students—Agencies that collaborate for in-take procedures, direct service, or research should explicitly spell out procedures for obtaining written consent and define in advance what data will be shared, how they are used, and the means of ensuring privacy if they are released from the originating agency.
  • Establish well-defined procedures—These procedures ensure that all parties involved who work with student records understand confidentiality restrictions and procedures for handling private, personally identifiable information. These also include adequate training on legal requirements and ethical standards, the appropriate use of the information, and the strategy to safeguard the security of the data.
  • Implement privacy safeguards—When research studies are to be conducted, information from several agencies can be analyzed within the education agency, following adequate privacy safeguards, so that no identifiable information is available to individual researchers or analysts. Data are matched electronically so that personally identifiable information from several data sources is connected within the computer and not actually seen. In these cases, personal information is only used to produce aggregate results for groups and programs.