New state law protects student data
Gone are the days of back-to-school shopping for paper and pencils. The age of technology is creeping into classrooms and shopping for supplies might now mean downloading an app or software for schoolwork.
But as technology use continues to grow, parental concerns have risen as loads of their children’s personal data is sent into cyberspace.
Maria Naughton, a New Canaan parent and member of the town’s board of education, said she became worried when her child entered answers to personal questions into a database for college information.
“At the time, I was wondering ‘Well, who sees these answers?’” Naughton said. “That was probably the eye-opener for me — something seemingly innocuous is now being given through a device online and includes a third party I don’t know about.”
Naughton joined other parents from the area and around the state in a two-year effort to have a new law passed that will protect student data.
The law, which will take effect Oct. 1, is comprised of several parts to protect different aspects of student data. It includes restrictions on how student information can be used by contractors, clarification on data ownership and says school boards must notify parents of any new contracts where student data may be collected. The act says student data is not owned by the contractors and data security and privacy provisions need to be included in all contracts.
He said the district is also reviewing all grade book software, tutorial programs and mobile applications used in classrooms to ensure they comply with the new guidelines.
Naughton’s concerns were elevated when she realized the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing partnered with the American Institute for Research and third-party vendors were collecting the data.
The companies provide software and data storage to the schools and collected the data to track the effectiveness of certain educational programs. But Naughton and other parents felt it was a lot of personal information on their children to have in other people’s hands.
The sensitive data being shared has come in all forms. Saxe Middle School students in New Canaan, for example, used chest straps to monitor their heart rates. However, their heart rate data was then collected and sent to Finland.
“Theoretically, they’re using it for the kids,” Naughton said. “But it’s a very personal thing.”
Bryan Luizzi, superintendent of New Canaan schools, said these data-collecting programs are also meant to benefit the students’ education. He said the chest straps were educational software that also allowed students to track their own heart rates for class.
“It’s teaching fitness in a way we couldn’t do otherwise,” Luizzi said. “We’re not doing it for research purposes.”
Naughton said she was particularly uncomfortable with the data being shared since she knew as a former teacher the sensitivity of some of the information.
“Kids all grow at different rates and capturing info in the classroom is different,” she said. “Kids grow, mature, think differently...So to capture it forever bothered me. Kids have problems, so if they're coming in on a bad day, you're capturing it forever.”
This lack of privacy raised the concerns of other local moms, including Dr. Kimberly Norton Butler, a psychologist who has four children ranging from elementary school to high school-aged attending New Canaan schools.
Norton Butler and Naughton said the new law will also affect the vendors, which will need to ensure their contracts now comply to new state standards.
“It requires a higher level of consciousness of data and notification to parents,” Norton Butler said. “It should not be a burden to any school.”
Stamford’s superintendent said he hopes the state helps school districts fund the cost of potentially replacing software or training teachers.
“It’s a good act,” Kim said. “I just hope that, as new incremental things unfold... our legislators provide the support to switch systems and staff training that come with greater security.”
The new law addresses the changes in education as students release more data through digital platforms.
“I see how education has changed so dramatically from the time my oldest and youngest have been in school,” Norton Butler said. “The digital platform is growing every day. That’s the way education is changing.”
But Naughton and Norton Butler are going to continue working to preserve the privacy of students.
“We have a lot more work to do,” Norton Butler said. “But it’s a start to making the whole data collection process transparent for parents.”
Staff writer Nelson Oliveira contributed to this report.