Getting a List from the School Office While Complying with FERPA
Skip to the bottom of this article for our suggested solution.
As a decision-making PTA volunteer at an elementary school, you may have run into problems collecting directory information for students and their parents. You aren’t alone. In recent years, school districts have made it increasingly difficult to communicate with parents and create an all-inclusive directory.
These directories exist solely for communication and organizational purposes – but school officials are afraid to cross the lines of FERPA, a law that protects the privacy of education records. For this reason, PTA members have been forced to compile lists of contact information manually at school events throughout the year, including orientation and PTA-organized events.
The resulting lists are far from all-inclusive and often take months to complete. Hours upon hours of time are put into communicating with parents and finding appropriate venues to solicit generally private information. PTA members come across as invasive when they are simply trying to create a method of communication that is beneficial for everyone.
PTA members are caught between a rock and a hard place. Because elementary schools misinterpret the meaning of FERPA, members are unable to obtain information from secretaries and school officials. However, because they lack the necessary contact information to get in touch with students and their parents manually, PTA members are unable to create a directory of their own outside of existing school events.
Without the ability to communicate with parents, PTA members are barred from completing large portions of their job. For example, attempting to pool together volunteers, create events, and encourage parent cooperation.
By better understanding the rights of PTA members under FERPA, we can encourage schools to release the information necessary to create an all-inclusive directory – saving volunteers time and effort and improving inter-PTA communication.
PTA members seek to create an all-inclusive list of contact information for a number of reasons, including:
(1) Ease of communication between parents and students to schedule playdates, carpool, organize events or school trips, and share concerns.
(2) The ability to contact parents directly for support and/or opinions when necessary.
(3) Ease of communication in emergency situations.
(4) The ability to group together in times of need.
If FERPA allows for disclosure of the sought-after directory information then why do some districts refuse the PTA access to it?
The Misinterpretation of FERPA
Instead of interpreting FERPA literally some districts avoid the issue altogether. While this may seem reasonable, these districts are ignoring the right of PTAs to use the school’s records to build a contact list and create a directory without compiling all of the work themselves.
Unfortunately, school districts take the lead. For this reason, many parents and staff members have assumed that third parties (and PTA members) are not allowed to gain access to contact information for students and their parents. This simply isn’t true.
FERPA (also known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) is a federal law that was enacted in 1974. It became effective on November 19 of the same year. The law applies to educational agencies and institutions that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education – in other words, public schools.
The law was intended to give parents certain rights, including the right to access education records, the right to consent to disclosure of contact information from those records, the right to file a complaint, and the right to request amended records.
Once a student turns eighteen, he or she becomes ineligible. All rights are then transferred from parent to student.
FERPA does not require schools to maintain certain records and acquire certain information. It does, however, require certain privacy standards to be followed.
When it comes to PTA members and the creation of an all-inclusive list of parent/student contact information, the following portion of FERPA is particularly important:
“Under FERPA, a school may not generally disclose personally identifiable information from a minor student’s education records to a third party unless the student’s parent has provided written consent. However, there are a number of exceptions to FERPA’s prohibition against non-consensual disclosure of personally identifiable information from education records. Under these exceptions, schools are permitted to disclose personally identifiable information from education records without consent, though they are not required to do so by FERPA.”
One exception includes school officials (such as teachers, board members, security personnel, and secretaries) who may obtain access to personal information contained in education records as long as the school has determined they have a “legitimate educational interest.”
Another exception, which is especially useful for PTA members, is the following:
“FERPA permits a school non-consensually to disclose personally identifiable information from a student’s education records when such information has been appropriately designated as directory information. ‘Directory Information’ is defined as information contained in the education records of a student that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed. Directory information could include information such as the student’s name, address, e-mail address, telephone listing, date and place of birth, major field of study, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, weight and height of members of athletic teams, dates of attendance, degrees and awards received, the most recent previous educational agency or institution attended, photograph, grade level, and enrollment status.”
In order for an elementary school to disclose directory information without consent, it must give public notice of the information it has deemed “directory information,” in addition to the parents’ right to restrict disclosure, and the period of time the parent has to create such a restriction.
In other words, directory information may be made available as long as parents have been informed and given the opportunity to say no. This disclosure does not need to be individual, as long as it reaches all parents involved.
The argument made toward elementary schools in favor of directory disclosure is two-fold.
First, schools are allowed to share directory information as long as (1) parents are given the chance to restrict disclosure, (2) parents have a certain period of time to create the restriction, and (3) the school publicly shares what it identifies as “directory information.”
Second, even though schools are not required by law to share directory information, they should allow PTA members to create an all-inclusive directory to encourage communication between parents. PTA members may not have a legal right, but they have a moral right.
The Experiences of Other Schools
How, then, should PTA members go about creating such a directory? How should elementary schools handle FERPA guidelines and informing parents of their rights underneath them?
These case studies represent what other school districts have done:
Eastport-South Manor Central School District
This particular school district shares FERPA information on its website. Directory information was handled as follows:
“Unless objection to any of the specific items are submitted in writing by parents, legal guardians or those students over the age of 18 years, the District herewith gives notice of the possibility that the District may release or publish…any or all of the following directory information pertaining to students as may be appropriate under the circumstances: the student’s name, parent’s name, address, telephone listing, date and place of birth, major field of study, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, weight and height of members of athletic teams, dates of attendance, degrees and awards received, and most recent or previous educational agency or institution attended by the student. Under the regulations of this act, parents, guardians or students over the age of 18 who do not desire the release of any of the above directory information must make a specific request in writing to the Superintendent by September 16, 2016.”
Following this statement, the page details FERPA guidelines. Notice the school provided (1) a method for privacy requests, (2) a date by which all privacy requests must be received, and (3) the exact information that it deemed “directory information.” The school need only update the date annually to correspond with the upcoming school year.
Montclair Public Schools
This district follows a similar format, using its webpage to share FERPA guidelines and establish what it deems “directory information.” However, instead of asking for a written request, parents/guardians are able to log into an access system and opt out online. Directions are given on the website to simplify this process.
While this method is far easier for parents, PTA members and school districts may want to consider a less condensed process. After all, parents are more likely to opt-out when the opportunity is directly in front of them.
Other Public School Districts
According to parent and student experiences, a number of public school districts provide disclosure forms during orientation, requiring parents to give permission rather than restrict it. Students whose parents fail to submit forms with a signature are automatically removed from directories.
This method is respectful toward parents and students alike. However, if students or parents skip this orientation step, an all-inclusive directory could suffer significantly.
Other districts provide notices during orientation, outlining FERPA guidelines, directory information examples, and how parents can make a privacy request. If parents fail to submit the request by a certain date, information is made available for PTA members and other third parties.
OUR SUGGESTED SOLUTION FOR STAYING IN COMPLIANCE WITH FERPA
Based on our research and experience what follows is the method we suggest for PTA and school to work together on gathering and sharing directory information while staying in compliance with FERPA. Each school varies on their specific registration and data collection procedure but our suggested method can easily be adapted to suit your school’s process.
(1) Include a notice on the PTA Dues form that you include in the registration welcome packet each fall that notifies the parent of their right to opt-out of having the school share their information with the PTA. Many schools also include the same notice on their website. Be sure to include what parents must do to opt-out and how much time they have to do so. We recommend allowing 14 days from the date of registration. For parents wishing to opt-out, direct them to postal mail a letter to the school office requesting the opt-out. The appropriate school record-keeper’s name should appear on the envelope and letter. We recommend against offering phone call, text or emails as methods of contact for opting-out.
(2) The school office will run a report of the student/parent/teacher information (Excel spreadsheet) and provide it to you via email. Before providing it to you they will remove all of the opted-out records.
(3) Your PTA and school have stayed in compliance with FERPA and you have a complete, accurate and up-to-date list that you can use to create a directory that includes all families in the school – not just those who have paid their dues. A complete directory is a directory people will use.