Who knows your student?
From marketers to the military, kids’ info is in demand

 

Jedd Kettler
County Courier

August 30  2007


FRANKLIN COUNTY: Information is power, and to everyone from commercial marketers and data collection companies to military recruiters, information about America's teenage students is not only powerful - it's essential to reaching a lucrative market.

Those seeking the attention of the youth market gather information from a wide variety of sources- including online and other surveys - but one other logical stop is schools, potential gold mines of youth-related data. And federal law often allows the release of contact and other information these groups are looking for.

Local school officials said this week that commercial requests for student contact information are relatively uncommon here though, and when they do come, officials take their roles as keepers of this information quite seriously.

"At schools we're constantly being barraged with ways to access students ... and it may even be (for) something really good," said Franklin West Supervisory Union Superintendent Armando Vilaseca. "Our job is to be an education institution. It's not a way for people to access students to make a profit."

Still, data mining is a reality in this age of information, and for parents concerned about their children's privacy, an awareness of who wants information and where they collect it from can be important. The start of a new school year is the perfect time to learn. Ultimately, the decision of what information can be released - and to whom - is up to parents, and the first half of September is the time to do it.

Marketers & federal law meet local policy
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) - passed in 1974 with the Federal Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act - is the federal law that deals with the privacy of student education records.

It applies to all schools that receive federal funding. FERPA protections of private and educational records – transcripts, for example – are relatively stringent, limited largely to parents and educators.

Many parents, though, are surprised to find out that more general information about their children - names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, honors and awards - can be more openly shared under FERPA. FERPA calls this "directory information" that "is generally not considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if released."

Mark Oettinger, the General Counsel for the Vermont Department of Education, said, "The 'directory information' piece is the exception."

According to FERPA, directory information can be disclosed by schools without parent consent.

The finer details are left up to local districts like Franklin County schools, who are often much more guarded about who can get this information. At the district level, local officials determine what non-school groups, if any, can be given directory information. Whether it's a local group charity group, an individual request, or a national magazine company, local schools' policies are generally a few steps more stringent than the federal baseline law.

"We don't provide any students' names or numbers to outside groups," said Enosburg Falls Principal Ed Grossman. "We're very protective."

Richford High School Principal Dale Guertin agreed: "We're just really careful about that today ... It's a rarity to give anything out."

Missisquoi Valley Union Principal Chaunce Benedict said that few such requests, at least from commercial or marketing entities, come into the school. "In my view it's important ... and good that these protections are in place, but really in my experience it's not that common at all to see a (request)," Benedict said.

One exception is photographers looking to offer senior portraits. MVU's policy is to release the directory information in this case.

On the other hand, the policy at Fairfax's Bellows Free Academy specifically limits all solicitation, so any commercial request - even on a small, local scale - is turned away.

BFA-Fairfax Principal Scott Lang pointed to a tuxedo rental company that perennially requests directory information.

"And every year I say no," Lang said. "We really try to sugar everything back to what our mission is, and it's about stimulating kids academically ... We're in the education business."

Lang said he is aware of schools in other states that take a distinctly different approach, in large part because of the need to supplement education budgets.

Lang started his education career in Massachusetts, where "they have schools that are selling their lists for money," he said.

No Franklin County schools raise money this way.

Military requirements
While general requests for directory information can be more closely controlled by school policies, a request from military recruiters for contact information is a clear - and for some a controversial - exception.

This change came about in 2002 with the passage of No Child Left Behind. Whereas FERPA allowed local districts to release directory information only if they so choose, NCLB required that the information be released to military recruiters upon request. This has led to an increase in regular annual requests from all military branches, school officials said.

"I, in fact, have a request from a recruiter on my desk for that information right now," said Benedict. "But I'm not going to give that information out until our handbook has gone out ... (because that) informs parents that - by law - that information has to be given out to military recruiters unless parents ask that they do not."

Unless parents specifically notify school districts that they do not want this information released to recruiters, schools are required to provide this list.

"(Parents) have the right to opt out," Grossman said.

Schools are also required to notify parents at the beginning of the school year of privacy and information protection policies, and in particular to let them know of their option to block release of directory information - whether to recruiters or anyone else.

Many print the policy prominently in student handbooks, while others advertise the information locally.

Lang said that three years ago, after he received some complaints that the school policy was not well-known enough by parents, BFA-Fairfax began sending a letter directly to parents.

"My awareness got raised. And it's a fairly easy letter to write," Lang said.