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Four Things to Consider Before Disclosing Student Information in an Emergency

Education Publications

The Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), which is a nonprofit organization focused on data privacy, recently issued a useful two-page “primer” for schools on disclosure of information during school emergencies. Although the document is not binding on schools, it contains some important reminders for balancing student privacy and school safety in emergencies, including four specific considerations that school leaders may wish to consider before releasing student-identifying information.

The FPF primer reminds school leaders that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does not prohibit the release of information necessary to address emergencies and protect student safety. A school official, which can include a member of a threat assessment or emergency response team, must articulate why he or she reasonably believes a student poses a significant threat before disclosing student information without consent. The primer includes four specific recommendations for school leaders considering releasing student-identifying information in an emergency:

  1. Have clear guidance in place before an emergency on when student information can be disclosed.
  2. Limit disclosure to only that information necessary to resolve an emergency or safety issue; in some situations, only directory information like name and email or non-school-record information like police/school resource records may be necessary to release, but in others specific student-record information may be necessary to release.
  3. Limit disclosure to individuals with a true need to know the information, but remember that this can in some cases includes students if necessary to help protect against a threat.
  4. Weigh unintended consequences against the benefits of monitoring disclosure. For example, the primer warns schools to “carefully distinguish between disclosures in response to specific, articulable threats and general school surveillance programs,” citing studies that “have shown correlations between high levels of school surveillance and the high percentage of minority students being suspended.” The primer reminds schools to consider such “unintended privacy and equity consequences” when implementing programs to monitor student information in the interest of school safety.

Notably, the implementing regulations for the Illinois School Student Records Act provide specific factors to consider before releasing student information in an emergency and also require that a parent be notified no later than the next school day that such information was released.