Student Privacy


Students do not shed all of their rights at the schoolhouse gate, including the right to privacy. Although recent Supreme Court decisions have diminished this right, there are substantial federal and state protections for the privacy of students' educational records. The most prominent of the federal protections for student privacy is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the "Buckley Amendment," FERPA protects the confidentiality of student records to some extent, while also giving students the right to review their own records.

Students' personal information is often collected through in-school surveys, sometimes for commercial use. Congress most recently addressed such surveys in the No Child Left Behind Act, a broad federal educational act. The Act provides parents and students the right to be notified of, and consent to, the collection of student information. However, the Act includes many exceptions to this right.

Congress does not always expand privacy when it addresses the collection of student information. Another provision of No Child Left Behind mandates that high schools turn over student contact information to military recruiters, unless parents or students explicitly opt out of such disclosure. And in 2002, Congress amended FERPA, via the USA PATRIOT Act, to require schools to transmit information about immigrant students to the INS. Under this program, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, schools had to begin in 2003 reporting immigrants' academic information, such as disciplinary actions or changes in programs of study.

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  • Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 122 S. Ct. 2268 (2002). In Gonzaga, the Supreme Court held that a student could not privately enforce rights conferred under FERPA by bringing a § 1983 civil rights action against a private university because the Act's nondisclosure provisions did not create any enforceable rights.
  • Owasso Indep. Sch. Dist. No. I-011 v. Falvo, 534 U.S. 426 (2002). In Owasso, the Supreme Court determined that grades on peer-graded papers do not qualify as education records, and thus are not protected by FERPA.
  • In Board of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cty. v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822, (2002), the Court ruled that students who voluntarily participate in extracurricular activities have a limited expectation of privacy because they voluntarily subject themselves to intrusions on their privacy, such as "occasional off-campus travel and communal undress." Furthermore, the Court found that requiring students to submit urine samples (by urinating in a bathroom stall while the teacher stood outside the stall listening "for the normal sounds of urination in order to guard against tampered specimens and to insure an accurate chain of custody") was "minimally intrusive" and a "not significant" invasion of students' privacy. In a concurring opinion, Justice Breyer compared student drug testing to other responsibilities that schools must bear, such as providing school lunches. Schools "prepare pupils for citizenship in the Republic [and] inculcate the habits and manners of civility as values in themselves conductive to happiness and as indispensable to the practice of self-government in the community and the nation," Breyer said.
  • United States v. Miami Univ., 294 F. 3d 797 (6th Cir. 2002). In Miami, the Sixth Circuit held that a newspaper does not have unrestricted access to unredacted student disciplinary records because such records are "education records" within the meaning of FERPA.
  • Jensen v. Reeves, 3 Fed. Appx. 905 (10th Cir. 2001). In Jensen, the Tenth Circuit determined that limited disclosure to interested parties about a child's misbehavior in school is legitimate under FERPA.
  • Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995). Upheld the random, suspicionless drug testing of student athletes. The Court said that athletes had a diminished expectation of privacy in relation to other students, noting that athletes were required to undergo physical exams before being allowed to join a team and undress and shower in communal locker rooms.
  • Bauer v. Kincaid, 759 F. Supp 575 (WD Mo. 1991). In Bauer, a district court held that a public university student newspaper may obtain and publish criminal investigation and incident reports prepared by a campus security department because such documents are not "education records" under FERPA.
  • Red and Black Publ'g Co. v. Bd. of Regents, 427 S.E.2d 257 (Ga. 1993). In a suit filed by the University of Georgia's student newspaper after it was denied access to campus court records and proceedings about hazing charges against two fraternities, the Georgia Supreme Court held that student court records were subject to the state open-records law and that disciplinary proceedings were subject to the state open-meetings statute.
  • In New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials, who are not exempt from the Amendment's dictates by virtue of the special nature of their authority over schoolchildren. However, the Court said that school officials do not have to obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority if the officials have reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated the law or the rules of the school. The court held that searches of students' belongings are permissible if the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the student's age and sex and the nature of the infraction.
  • Planned Parenthood of Cent. Mo. V. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976). If a student confides in school personnel about pregnancy or birth control issues, case law establishing minors' reproductive rights probably limits schools' ability to disclose this information to the student's parents without his or her consent.

Student Profiling and Student Surveys

American Student List Information BrokerageAmerican Student List (ASL) sells databases of children's names in grades K-12 overlaid with data on sex, age, whether they own a telephone, income, religion, and their race or ethnicity. This information is often gleaned from surveys that are administered while children are in school under the pretense of college admissions and other education-related purposes. Students and parents do not know that their personal information is being used for the secondary purpose of marketing. The data is used for hawking credit cards, catalog items, magazines, student "recognition" products, and job recruitment. This image of ASL data comes from the SRDS Direct Marketing List Manual, a list of marketing lists. It is not available online, but one can often find it in a library.

Student "recognition" products, such as "Who's Who Among American High School Students" and the "National Dean's List" have a strong marketing function. Information collected in composing both directories is used for marketing a wide variety of products wholly unrelated to education. And, although teachers and administrators are encouraged to nominate students and transfer data to the company, the reality is that a growing number of employers and colleges don't consider such recognition directories as meritorious.

In October 2002, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled cases against ASL and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA) for collecting personal information from children using deceptive practices. The FTC complaint alleged that the companies operated a scheme to cull marketing data from student through surveys administered under the pretense of college admissions and scholarship opportunities.

NRCCUA sent letters to schools asking teachers to dedicate classroom time to administering detailed surveys for college admissions and financial aid purposes. These "Post-Secondary Planning" surveys elicited detailed personal information from students, including their religious affiliation, personal interests, and social attitudes. The surveys did have a privacy notice, but the language implied that the information was for educational purposes only. NRCCUA marketed the information collected to higher education institutions, but also shared the information with ASL, which used the data for direct marketing.

In August 2002, the New York Attorney General filed suit against Student Marketing Group (SMG), a company that collected information from students for direct marketing. The company was alleged to have formed a non-profit subsidiary, Educational Research Center of America (ERCA) which sent millions of surveys to high schools to collect information for college financial aid and scholarship opportunities. ERCA, without notice to the schools or students, was also using the information for direct marketing of magazines, credit cards, and other items. In January 2003, SMG and ERCA settled the New York Attorney General's case, and a separate investigation brought by the Federal Trade Commission.

Student profiling does not end with grade school. Profilers collect and use information from students in higher education as well. College students are targeted for magazine subscriptions, student "recognition" programs, credit cards, insurance solicitations, long distance plans, toys, cell phone plans, mail-order food, and other products. Often, college students' personal information is obtained through the institution itself. Institutions may reveal students' contact and activities (club membership) information through student directories, joint marketing agreements, or through state open records acts that require the release of enrollment lists.

State Laws

As of September 2002, thirty-five states have passed laws supplementing the protection of education records provided by FERPA. The states that offer the most protection include:

California: College and university students have a right to privacy under the state Constitution. Parents have a right to inspect children's records in both public and private schools. (Cal. Educ. Code §§ 49060-49083.)

Louisiana: A 1974 Louisiana Attorney General's opinion states that children have a right to privacy in schools. Their records are considered confidential.

Nebraska: Academic and disciplinary records are to be kept separate. Disciplinary records are destroyed at the time of the student's graduation if authorized by the state records board. (Neb. Rev. Stat. § 79-4,157.)

Ohio: Schools are forbidden to release education records for any profit-making activity. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3319.321.)

Oklahoma: It is a misdemeanor for a teacher to reveal any information about a child obtained in the teacher's professional capacity, except as required by fulfillment of contractual obligations or as requested by a parent. (Okla. Stat. Ann. 7-6-115.)

Texas: Education records are considered confidential and can be released only upon request of school personnel, a student, parent, or spouse. (Tex. Gov. Code § 552.114).

Related Student Privacy Issues

Military Access to Students and Student Information

Two laws were passed in 2001 which make it easier for military recruiters to access high school students' contact information. The laws changed schools' previous ability, under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), to choose to whom they would release such information.For more information about this issue, see EPIC's DOD Recruiting Database page.

Tracking and Managing Student Information

Although the No Child Left Behind Act explicitly prohibits the creation of a nationwide student database, the Act does set up requirements for collecting information from students that may encourage school districts and states to develop new ways to track students. The NCLB requires each state to create procedures for "facilitating the transfer of disciplinary records" to any school in which a student enrolls or seeks to enroll. (20 U.S.C.S. § 7165). NCLB also includes vast guidelines and requirements for monitoring student achievement. Schools, districts and states will link test scores to, for instance, information like race and socioeconomic status. Some states have created unique identifiers for all students that can carry many pieces of information, and some of these systems have raised the concern of groups like the ACLU.

Federal Substance Abuse Records Laws: If a state law gives older minors the right to get treatment or counseling for substance abuse problems without parental consent, and school-based persons operate a program to provide that assistance, the federal laws require that any record in the student's file relating to the assistance be kept confidential—even from the minor's parents—unless the minor consents to a release.

Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)

In January 2002, FERPA was amended to permit the Attorney General to obtain a court order to collect education records from schools for the purposes of investigating or prosecuting terrorism. The Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), in conjunction with a number of other federal agencies, is currently in the initial stages of implementing the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

SEVIS is an Internet-based system that allows schools to transmit student information to the INS for purposes of tracking and monitoring non-immigrant and exchange students. Accessible information includes a student's personally identifiable information, admission at port of entry, disciplinary information, and academic information, such as changes in program of study. Schools will be required to transmit such information to the INS for the duration of a student's stay in the United States. The USA PATRIOT Act requires that SEVIS be fully implemented by January 1, 2003.

Campus Identification Cards

Many colleges and universities are employing identification cards that are used to access every facility or service on the campus. The goal of these cards is to create a seamless system where students can purchase items or access services with just one card.

These systems of identification pose new risks to privacy and autonomy. First, such systems can create a log of students' movements, which later can be accessed by police or other authorities. There is also the problem of malicious student or employee access, caused in part by institutional hiring of students for positions where they can access the personal data of other students. With ubiquitous campus identification schemes, student employees or others may use the data to stalk or harass other students and employees.

Second, it creates an infrastructure that allows dataveillance. Such systems can allow secondary use of location or consumption data, much like supermarket-shopping cards are used now to profile what individuals purchase at stores. These cards eliminate cash transactions, and in doing so, may tie identity to every transaction. For instance, Blackboard's student identification system notes that it:

"Provide you [sic] users with identification cards and track user data. All user profiles are stored in a central database, and user data can be imported from a variety of commercial Student Information Systems (SIS)".

NuVision Networks, Corp. markets their student identification system as one that can accommodate a number of campus activities, including student voting:

"Voting We've taken all the work out of college voting. With Campus Center it's easy to manage complex voting situations involving an unlimited number of specialized groups. Votes can be multiple choice or Yes/No, and since the actual tally is constantly displayed for each vote, there is really no need to post results. Student can watch the voting as it happens from any network computer.

One cannot take "all the work out" of voting. Electronic voting is an extremely complex topic that implicates risks to the secret ballot, and inference with the vote. Bryn Mawr Professor Rebecca Mercuri, a leading authority in electronic voting notes:

Fully electronic systems do not provide any way that the voter can truly verify that the ballot cast corresponds to that being recorded, transmitted, or tabulated. Any programmer can write code that displays one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints yet another result. There is no known way to ensure that this is not happening inside of a voting system.

Another service offered by Blackboard, "Bb One," allows off-campus use of campus identity cards. This system specifically allows direct marketing based on the identification system:

Bb One™ is a transaction-based outsourcing solution that enables the acceptance of the university ID card as a form of payment off-campus. Bb One provides students with a cashless, safe, and secure way to transact on and around campus while offering parents the assurance that their funds will be spent within a university-approved network. Blackboard develops a comprehensive off-campus merchant network on behalf of each university and manages every aspect of the program from merchant acquisition to merchant support. Participating merchants also benefit from access to a university-endorsed spending program and direct-to-student and parent marketing programs.

The security of these identification systems is also questionable. Most of the systems operate on Windows platforms, which are particularly vulnerable to malicious cracking. Furthermore, Blackboard Inc. has employed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to stop two students from delivering a lecture on the security vulnerabilities of the cards.

Third, and most importantly, pervasive identification systems acclimatize students to the custom of carrying an identity card and using it for routine purposes. We do not live in a society where individuals are required to carry identification, but these systems essentially force students to do so. Campuses that employ these systems are likely to breed a generation of students who don't see the fundamental privacy risks that flow from eliminating anonymous systems, and from requiring individuals to carry credentials.

Campus Credit Card Marketing

Financial institutions are very aggressive in attracting student customers. New students generally have no debt, and little understanding of how credit cards and compound interest work. Many financial institutions actually have exclusive credit card marketing agreements on certain campuses, where the school profits from the issuance of credit cards to students. The pursuit of students after graduation is also privacy invasive, as alumni associations receive payment for selling personal information to the credit card companies.


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