Student Data, Privacy Rise To The Top Of Lawmakers' Concerns

Feb 6, 2014

While Florida lawmakers work to integrate more technology-based learning into school curriculums, they’re not as enthused by other ways districts want to use technology: especially when it comes to identifying students.

Last summer the Polk County school district launched a pilot program allowing a security company to install iris scanners on school buses.  Problem was, the scanners were installed without telling parents first, which did *not* make some of them happy. Now the state legislature has jumped on the issue,  with a bill banning the use of biometrics in schools clearing its first committee this week. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart supports the measure and says there are other ways to identify students:

"I don’t know if those methods are needed to ensure our students’ security. But we’re moving forward in making sure our students and our students’ information is secure.” 

The ACLU of Florida says it’s also supportive banning biometrics in schools. Port Orange Republican Senator Dorothy Hukill’s plan would also require districts to assign students identification numbers other than their social security numbers. Biometric systems are popping up in schools across the nation—some track school lunch program users, others are aimed at recording attendance using fingerprints. Some lawmakers also want to see changes to what student information the Florida Department of Education reports to the federal government.

In a separate, but somewhat related issue, lawmakers are looking to minimize the types and amount of student data that’s reported to the federal government. Orlando Democratic Representative Joe Saunders says he’s concerned about the information third-party groups, such as researchers, can see.

“I haven’t seen this recommendation come out of the department, but I was wondering what you think of us making very clear about, even for a study we’re asking for, we be very clear we won’t be sharing names of students, names of parents and other personally-identifiable information to a 3rd party group asking to do a study or a study we commission as a state.”

The Florida Department of Education says giving students ID numbers separate from their social security numbers could address that concern and a bill pending in the legislature would do just that. The state reports information including test scores and whether students are on free and reduced lunch to the federal government, but doesn’t give out student-specific information. A federal student privacy law known as FERPA, spells out who can access such records. According to FERPA, individual schools don’t have to have a parent’s consent to disclose a student's name, address, telephone number or date and place of birth. But they do have to tell parents what information is collected and allow them to request that it not be disclosed.

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