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School Districts Struggle To Comply With New Student Data Privacy Law

mikael altemark
Creative Commons

Connecticut school districts have been working over the last two years to comply with new privacy laws around student data, but many have been struggling to make the July 1, 2018 deadline.

Each district uses hundreds if not thousands of technology products, and many of those products use student data in some way. So two years ago, the state passed a law requiring districts to post contracts online for all tech vendors they used. These vendors are also required to show how they share student data.

But getting there has been a tough road, said Doug Casey, executive director of the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology, a state agency.

"The biggest challenge for them is just the scope and the timing,” Casey said. "There's a lot of technology in schools, and there's a lot of data that is being collected in really good, effective ways."

These data can be used to personalize learning and track kids over time, but there's a concern about privacy. Last year, hackers stole data on millions of American students, in one of the largest breaches of student data on record. The goal of Connecticut's law is to make sure data is secure, and also to ensure students and parents know if their data has been compromised.

The state reached out to big tech companies, like Google and Microsoft, who have since changed their terms to comply with state law. The state is currently reviewing Apple’s terms of service.

But there are other tech shops that aren't as easy to deal with, said Jack Zamary, an assistant superintendent for Monroe Schools

"When you get into sophisticated applications at the high school level, for Advanced Placement courses, the software that's used at that level is very professional,” Zamary said.

Monroe uses game design software that high school students enjoy, but the company that makes the software doesn't see the benefit with complying with Connecticut's law, Zamary said. The market is too small.

"So it really puts us in a very awkward place,” he said. “Because our kids love the course, they love doing the work, but we're having a real challenge getting compliant software to offer that kind of course."

A pending bill would allow waivers for certain software programs that help kids with disabilities, but there's nothing in there about other types of software.

Compliance with the law is further complicated because of the fast-changing nature of school-based software, said Doug Casey.

"There's new software that's coming out all the time that's being used by schools, and software developers are developing new features that use data in different ways,” Casey said. “So those terms of service change all the time, and the use of products changes all the time."

The state has set up a database of approved vendors to make it easier for schools to know which software companies are in compliance with the law. Casey said he expects some districts will need more time to fully comply beyond the July 1 deadline.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.
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