How Long Should K-12 Schools Hold On To Student Data For School Safety Reasons?

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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Student dataStudent data privacy is an increasingly important topic in 2020, as technology becomes part of both the every day classroom and safety protocol for K-12 schools. When a school implements a technological tool, student data - including potentially personal information - might be collected. Data is a delicate subject, especially within the context of school safety, as new tools, such as social-media monitoring or facial-recognition, raise serious concerns about privacy. Legislation to regulate how data is collected and for how long has yet to become standard across the United States. K-12 school leaders should consider best practices and look to state or local regulations when considering whether or not to hold on to student data for school safety reasons. 

Educators should be familiar with Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of student records, as well as state & local privacy laws, before making any decision about how data will be collected or used for school safety purposes. Each individual state will have unique laws or regulations, and residents may have a stake in whether or not student data is being collected in the community. For example, the ACLU of Massachusetts has advocated for more strict student privacy protections. In 2015, the organization published a study titled “Student Privacy in Massachusetts K-12 Schools,” which outlines many of the common concerns students and parents have regarding data privacy.

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Students and parents are encouraged to ask school administrators important questions about data privacy, including what data can be accessed when students are using school-controlled devices, or what circumstances are deemed appropriate for administrators to access student data. Many parents will also be interested in whether or not data is being shared with a third party service, and if its possible for students to opt-out of this disclosure. Before choosing to hold onto student data, schools should be prepared to have a transparent student data policy and have answers to common questions from the community regarding privacy.  

Why Social Media Monitoring Raises Difficult Privacy Questions 

Information tied to individual students is referred to as personally identifiable information (PLL), and this data is subject to additional laws and restrictions, according to Connect Safely, a student privacy organization. Personally identifiable information includes any information about a student’s identity, academics, medical conditions, or anything else that is collected on behalf of schools or by a technology vendor that is individual to each student. This includes everything from standard student files, such as medical history or immunization records, to flagged social media posts if a district is using monitoring technology. For safety managers, evaluating if student’s data should be stored, and for how long, must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

Social media monitoring, a practice which involves using artificial intelligence to scan public social media posts for terms indicating a threat, has become one of the most controversial strategies. Research indicates that the technology may recreate racial and gender bias, resulting in what experts call “algorithmic bias,” according to the New York Times. Another concern is that false leads may overwhelm law enforcement - one high school in Massachusetts reported getting two to six alerts per day from a social media monitoring service, the majority of which ended up being normal teenage banter, as per the New York Times. 

Related Blog: Is K-12 School Surveillance Going Too Far?

Privacy advocates worry that surveillance tools are inappropriate on a K-12 campus, and that surveillance tools may unfairly target students who are already disciplined at higher rates, such as students of color and students with disabilities, as per the Guardian. In 2013, a student named Auseel Yousefi was expelled from his high school in Alabama for a joke made on Twitter the last day of his junior year, according ot the New York Times. One of the posts in question was flagged by a social media monitoring service as a threat to a teacher, but the tweet was a joke between peers that the teacher was reportedly in on. 

Yousefi argued that the scenario demonstrated how, in addition to bringing insubstantial benefit to schools, social media monitoring and other data-tracking services raise liability questions. “It takes authority and extends it to an inappropriate extent in a way that’s truly terrifying,” he said. Given that the school did not notify students, parents, or a local school board ahead of implementing the technology, the situation demonstrates how data concerns  arise when student data is stored or used for disciplinary purposes. 

Leveraging Technology to Evaluate Risk WIthout Compromising Privac

Technology is increasingly playing a role in student safety, and not every tool puts schools in a difficult position regarding student data. K-12 leaders can also implement a 2-way anonymous tip texting system, which allows students to volunteer critical information about threats on social media, without collecting or storing data on individual students. In November, a report titled, “Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence” found that in nearly 80% of the shootings, the assailant’s behavior was “so alarming it elicited concern from bystanders about the safety of the attacker or those around them”. By implenting a tipline, safety managers can better identify concerns on social media. 

By providing an anonymous tip-line for students, administrators can encourage members of the community to come forward about suspicious information without fear of retaliation. The tool can help local law enforcement identify suspicious activity without invading student privacy, and providing a centralized reporting system for students may be an even more effective preventative measure than AI monitoring software, which is prone to mistakes. In an era where a threat assessment model is becoming an increasingly critical aspect of a school safety plan, tip reporting can allow schools to invest in preventative measures without compromising student data privacy. 

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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