Working Around FERPA
A Guide For PTA Members
As a decision-making PTA member at an elementary school, you’ve probably run into problems collecting directory information for students and their parents. You aren’t alone. In recent years, elementary schools have made it increasingly difficult to create an all-inclusive directory for parents and PTA members.
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 everyone involved an immense amount of time and effort.
The Misinterpretation of FERPA
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.
In a nutshell, the directories created by PTA members are completely harmless. They aren’t meant to encourage solicitation. Rather, they are meant to encourage communication when parents (and students) need it most.
Why, then, should elementary schools attempt to bar PTA members from directory information?
Sometimes, when we read something lengthy, wordy, or overwhelming, we assume the worst. Instead of attempting to interpret political or legal jargon, we choose the safe route. In refusing to release generally private student information, school districts are blocking themselves from lawsuits. While this may seem reasonable, these districts are ignoring the right of third parties to create an all-inclusive directory of student records.
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 and students alike.
The Experiences of Other Schools
How should PTA members go about creating a directory? How should elementary schools handle FERPA guidelines and inform 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.”
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.
According to a number of parents and student, many 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 of parents and students alike.
Our Suggested Solution
In the last section, we looked at the solutions other school districts adopted to adhere to FERPA guidelines. Based on these case studies, we’ve come up with a suggested step-by-step solution of our own.
(1) Start by contacting the elementary school in question. If you run into hesitation from secretaries or the main office, get in touch with the school principal. From there, you may be instructed to contact the school board. Either way, arrange for a person-to-person meeting. Contact other PTA members to garner support.
(2) When you meet with decision-makers, bring documentation that shows FERPA guidelines word-for-word. Share your knowledge of the directory information exception, then explain your intentions. Be firm and stand your ground. Create a group of supportive parents and PTA members, if necessary.
(3) Once you’ve convinced the decision-makers at your elementary school, decide what method you’d like to use to inform parents. The safest method, by far, is requiring the signature of a parent or guardian at orientation – a school function that all students are expected to attend.
You can also send home an official notice at the beginning of the school year. However, it can be difficult to prove that all parents and/or guardians have received the notice. Another popular option is posting a notice on a public social media page or website. Remember, the notice doesn’t need to be individual. It just needs to be reasonably accessible to all parents.
(4) Once parents have signed waivers and/or received notices, wait for the proper amount of time to elapse. Remove any information from the directory that has been barred from disclosure by a parent or guardian.
In 2017, having an all-inclusive directory and encouraging communication between parents should be normal for public school districts. Bring your elementary school into the future by sharing your FERPA knowledge and brainstorming reasonable methods to help PTA members stay within guidelines.