School administrators spend a lot of times dealing with the problems generated by social media. We were amused by a recent case in which a student’s use of social media actually solved a problem faced by a school district.
In Letter to Anonymous, 117 LRP 42289 (FPCO 2017), the US Department of Education’s Family Privacy Compliance Office addressed a mother’s complaint that information related to her son’s recent discipline was divulged from his educational records. According to the mother, a teacher had accessed the student’s records to obtain information about a recent disciplinary event that resulted in the student’s suspension from school. The mother alleged that the teacher shared the information from the records with students, and that it eventually became known to members of the school hockey team.
The school responded to the FPCO complaint by pointing out that the student’s brother had shared the facts surrounding the suspension on Twitter. This undermined the parent’s claim, because “FERPA does not protect the confidentiality of information in general, and, therefore, does not apply to the disclosure of information derived from a source other than education records, even if education records exist which contain that information.” Basically, FPCO concluded that if a student or his family has revealed confidential information about the student on social media, they cannot later complain that school staff must be the source of community gossip about the student.
FPCO’s analysis in Letter to Anonymous is a great reminder for school staff about the scope educators’ obligations under FERPA. FERPA requires protection of personally identifiable information from educational records. Generally, FERPA does not require confidentiality for information obtained through hearsay or accounts of personal knowledge or observations. It is still best practice for school staff to refrain from sharing information about students that staff have learned through interactions at school – even if the family themselves have disclosed the same information on social media.
If you have any questions about your obligations under FERPA, we encourage you to contact your school attorney, or call Karen, Steve, Bobby, or Tim.