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

1.A. Principles Underlying Privacy Protections

To protect the privacy of families whose children are in school, states and the federal government have established legal statutes to keep private the education records that schools maintain on students. These laws frame data collection procedures, restrict information disclosure, and safeguard the quality of the information that school systems routinely collect and maintain. All education records about students, whether handwritten or computerized, are protected by the same privacy regulations.

Education personnel are responsible for protecting the integrity and accuracy of the information they gather and maintain. Therefore, data managers, their staff, and other agency and school personnel must become familiar with the laws that ensure the confidentiality of the records, as well as the legal concepts underlying those laws.

The term “education records” means records, files, documents, and other materials that contain information directly related to a student and that are maintained by education agencies or institutions, or by individuals acting on behalf of the agencies. It contains the administrative reports of students’ educational progress, along with any information about past or current use of school-related services, such as special education, social work services, or other supplementary educational support. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 USC § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99), a federal law, limits who can have access to an education record without the consent of the student’s parent, and it provides for a parent’s right to see what is kept in the records. These two basic features have broad implications for the treatment of information about students by teachers, administrators, and researchers.

In addition, schools that participate in a federally assisted school nutrition program have personal information about students’ eligibility for free and reduced-price school meals or free milk. The program has regulations that are more restrictive than FERPA’s regarding the disclosure and use of this information. Section 2 of this document discusses in detail how this type of information is safeguarded under federal laws.

In addition to the everyday use of student information by teachers and administrators, education records are a source of basic data used for administrative purposes and policymaking. Statistical information summarized from education records can be an important resource for monitoring programs and for evaluating the success or failure of education policies. Administrative use of computerized records means that education records are used increasingly farther from their point of origin. As a result, it has become more complicated but no less essential for school officials to be vigilant about protecting the confidentiality of records. Those who work with education records have legal and ethical obligations to observe rigorous procedures for protecting the privacy of the original information and the individuals whose records are involved.