Confidentiality: Protecting Yourself and Your Students

Regarding confidentiality and student privacy, educators often find themselves in unique situations, not unlike those in the medical profession. You are responsible for the extremely difficult task of making sure that the next generation receives a quality education, while at the same time, having to comply with extensive federal privacy regulations that many are not even aware exist. Often you may find yourself privy to information that is sensitive and in some cases even unsettling. It is during these times that educators find themselves in a challenging situation, feeling the human need to discuss it with someone, yet bound by law and ethics that limit what can be disclosed and with whom it can be discussed. This is a burden that educators bear and with which few outside the education profession can relate.

We have all heard chatter around the office or in social settings, discussions that sometimes are not so appropriate. Those discussions take on a different meaning when it is in a school setting and revolves around medical issues or performance of the students. What is appropriate to discuss among fellow teachers and parents? What should you do if you think you are crossing the line? When in doubt, don’t discuss it. Whether it is a parent or a teacher, you should refer them to your schools administration when you are unsure if the questions being asked are appropriate for you to answer.

Parent/Teacher Relationship

One frequent situation that teachers can relate to often occurs with parents before class starts. Many parents will stop by at drop off and want to casually discuss their child’s performance while they have a minute and something pressing is on their mind. From a teacher perspective, it is highly beneficial to keep those parents as engaged as possible, and this time can be beneficial for a quick chat to connect with the parent. However, it is not beneficial to the child if those conversations are overheard by other students or even other parents that might also be in the room waiting to talk to the teacher. You should be open to speak with parents as long as it does not disrupt classroom time, but should also be ready to suggest that the parent stop by after school or schedule a time to meet in a less public environment to continue the conversation.

Posting Photographs on the Internet

As social media becomes an ever increasing way to keep parents engaged in the learning process of their children, caution should be taken when using photography of children. This is a seemingly harmless act, posting pictures of students on Facebook or the school website. However, if not done carefully, it could be considered a violation of FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act). When posting a picture or video of a student, without written permission from the parents, no personally identifiable information can be posted along with it. When it comes to the safety of children it is always best to err on the side of caution.

Medical Issues

Discussion of medical conditions primarily falls under one of two laws. Depending on how the information is obtained it may be protected under either the FERPA or HIPPA acts. While it is generally acceptable to discuss these issues amongst teachers and school administrators, it is never acceptable to discuss it with another parent. In fact, discussing it in an area where a parent might overhear your conversation could get you into a situation you would rather avoid. A question from a concerned parent of another student that starts, “How is Johnny?” may not be so innocent when you start to answer it. In a situation like this, it is generally best to be straight forward and say that due to privacy laws, you are not permitted to discuss medical situations. You can however, suggest that they speak directly with Johnny’s parents, or that you can send their message of goodwill to the parent and share their contact information with Johnny’s parents if they wish and Johnny’s parents can decide whether to contact them and share their story. While this may seem counter-intuitive, discussing anyone’s private medical history can be a violation of their privacy.

An exception to this rule would be if you have received written permission from the child’s parent. For example, a parent may inform the school that little Johnny fell and broke his arm, and could they please let his fellow classmates know that he is OK and will be back to school in a few days. In this situation it is acceptable to let Johnny’s friends know that he is OK. Care should be taken when discussing the issue with parents, however, and no additional information should be given if it is known; keep the discussion strictly to the fact that Johnny’s OK and will be back in a few days, and NOT that he broke his arm when his parents pushed him down the stairs.

Student Performance and Education Records

Discussing student records, even with other staff members could be a violation of FERPA, unless there is a legitimate educational need. There are exceptions to this rule primarily in emergency situations; however, it is best to leave it to your school administrators to decide who needs to know what. Discussing student performance or what is in a student’s education record with anyone outside of the institution is not permitted, with few exceptions. Conversations among teaching peers can be useful especially if another teacher has insight into a certain child’s learning style and they have found something that works with the child, so this is not to say that the “I just don’t know how to get through to Jane” discussions amongst fellow teachers should not happen. However, it is always best to make sure these conversations happen in a private area where other students, unnecessary staff and parents cannot overhear the dialogue.

In this generation of “connectedness”, it can be easy to forget your professionalism in a relaxed environment. Since so much is shared through social media and the like, something you learned by being someone’s “friend” on the internet may not be something they want shared with the world and that can be an easy point to forget. Discussions about things you’ve heard, or even knowledge you gained firsthand, can have a dramatic impact on the children surrounding you and the future interactions between them and other teachers. In an educational environment, children’s privacy is of utmost importance and maintaining their confidentiality should be held above all else, especially the urge to be the first “in the know”. When faced with this situation, use your best judgment to decide if you should be a part of the conversation or a part of the solution.

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