Education Law Insights

Are Emails, Texts, Tweets, and Other Digital Communications Student Records Under FERPA and State Law?

Posted by Brian Crowley on February 20, 2013

As schools increase the use of technology to communicate with and about students, questions arise about the intersection between the data created and student records laws, such as the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). States also have similar laws that may provide greater protections than their federal counterpart. Are emails, texts, Tweets, and other digital communications between teachers, administrators, parents, and students “educational records” under FERPA and related state laws?

Let’s address the following questions: (1) Why does it matter? (2) Are digital communications student records? and (3) How do I respond to a broad student records request for digital communications? (more…)

Legal Issues for BYOD and 1:1 Programs in Schools: #Edchat Follow-Up

Posted by Brian Crowley on February 12, 2013

Each Tuesday the #Edchat hashtag brings together educators from across the globe to discuss education-related topics on Twitter. (For those wondering “What is #Edchat,” one of the founders describes the movement here.) Last week one of the questions on #Edchat was “How do we train educators to teach in programs like BYOD and 1:1?” The chat was timely because the Internet is abuzz with questions about whether BYOD programs and 1:1 programs have a place in the classroom. BYOD programs are programs through which schools tell students “bring your own devices” to the classroom for pedagogical use, and 1:1 programs are programs through which schools equip each student with a school-owned electronic device for school-related use.

As the transcript shows, there was a lively conversation with hundreds of Tweets discussing the benefits of BYOD and 1:1 programs. For instance, participants pointed out that BYOD and 1:1 programs allow technology to be more seamlessly integrated into the classroom in ways the traditional computer lab never allows. Participants also noted that use of technology in the classroom can help turn students from “tech comfy” to “tech savvy.” (The idea is described more here.)

The participants also pointed out some of the risks of BYOD and 1:1 programs. As one participant put it, “Moving forward with 1:1 without preparing teachers properly creates school culture and pedagogical problems.” But there are also important legal risks, and school districts should not move forward with BYOD or 1:1 programs without preparing educators to understand those risks, as well. I pointed this out in a few Tweets, and was asked by some participants to provide some resources about those legal risks.

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USDOE Spanish Bullying Website Highlights Challenges in Addressing Bullying with LEP Students, Parents, Staff, and Community Members

Posted by Brian Crowley on February 11, 2013

The U.S. Department of Education has launched a Spanish-language website providing resources to teachers, parents, and community leaders to prevent bullying. The website is http://espanol.stopbullying.gov and is similar in content to its English-language counterpart, www.stopbullying.gov. This website is an important reminder of the intersection between challenges school districts face in addressing bullying and challenges they face in communicating effectively with Limited English Proficient (LEP) students and parents about important issues. Schools with large populations of parents and students with LEP should take steps to address bullying and provide bullying prevention education resources in relevant languages as well as in English.

The Illinois State Board of Education reported in its recent Superintendent’s Message that the Spanish-language “stopbullying” website includes the following resources:

  • Training Module with Speaker Notes – a presentation with suggested talking points, including the latest research to help participants create an action plan for a community event.
  • Training Module PowerPoint – a slide-by-slide presentation for use at a community event, workshop, or town hall meeting.
  • Community Action Toolkit – a supplemental guide, including tip sheets, a template event agenda, action planning matrix, and feedback forms.
  • Misdirections Packet – a Tip Sheet  and a Spanish transcript of the Misdirections video featuring Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, a national expert in bullying prevention who discusses approaches to avoid in bullying prevention and response.

The Spanish-language resource is a reflection of the challenges school districts face in juggling bullying concerns and concerns relating to communicating with English Language Learners and students and parents with LEP. When LEP students, parents, staff and community members are at issue, it can be even more difficult for school districts to comply with recent Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) requirements to prevent and address certain types of bullying, such as bullying based on ethnic background or race. For students and parents with linguistic challenges, this may include education on and responses to bullying in a language other than English.

Moreover, recent lawsuits make clear that educating staff and community members about bullying in schools and how to report it is important. Responding to such reports in a meaningful way is also important. One recent lawsuit reportedly filed by a former school district employee inArizona, for instance, alleges that the school district did not respond to her reports that an ELL student was being bullied for his strong accent, among other things.

Balancing the Burdens of Transparency in the Illinois Freedom of Information Act

Posted by Brian Crowley on February 5, 2013

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial, “The burden of transparency” asks a provocative question: does the unduly burdensome exemption in the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allow an unfair loophole for public bodies to avoid producing public records? The Tribune editorial calls upon lawmakers to remove the unduly burdensome provision from the Illinois law. The federal Freedom of Information Act and public access laws in many other states include similar provisions and so the questions raised in the editorial could be applicable across the country. But courts and lawmakers considering such challenges should keep in mind the serious countervailing interests of public bodies – and the public taxpayers who fund them – before taking drastic measures like removing unduly burdensome exemptions from public access laws.

The editorial was written against the backdrop of a recent Illinois lawsuit, For the Good of Illinois v. State of Illinois, Office of Comptroller, 13CH00257, which was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County in early January. As explained in the complaint, For the Good of Illinois (FGI) operates a website, www.openthebooks.com, which is a searchable website that contains financial records from public bodies. According to the FGI website, the website includes “7 million lines of public employment data covering over 95% of Illinois public employment and $236 billion of public employment pay, pension and worker compensation claims.” The complaint indicates that that FGI obtained such information from, among other public bodies, 944 local school districts and 36 colleges and universities. (more…)