Student data privacy has become a crucial concern for education leaders and leadership teams in today’s digital age. School leaders have a lot of student data to deal with, ranging from personal information to academic performance, behavior, and even medical records. As schools increasingly turn to tech to improve drive school improvement, safeguarding sensitive student data is a top priority.
Given the high risk of data breaches, cyber-attacks, and unauthorized access, developing standards for protecting sensitive student data is key to confidently handling student data. In addition to complying with laws and regulations, this blog post highlights seven best practices to help K-12 school leaders ensure student data privacy and protection.
- Understanding legal requirements for student data privacy
- 7 Best practices for student data security and privacy compliance
- Key takeaways
1. Understanding legal requirements for student data privacy
Before we dive into the best practices, it’s essential to be aware of the legal requirements under FERPA (Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act) and COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). Compliance with these federal laws, as well as state-specific legislation such as California’s Student Online Personal Information Protection Act or New York State Education Law 2-d, is essential to protecting students’ online activities and ensuring their safety.
Key Provisions of FERPA and COPPA
- FERPA: This law protects the privacy of student’s education records by limiting access to authorized personnel. Schools must obtain written consent from parents before disclosing personally identifiable information from a student’s record.
- COPPA: Designed to ensure online safety for children under 13, this act requires websites and apps targeting minors to provide clear notice about their data collection practices and obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information.
State-level legislation addressing student data privacy
In addition to federal regulations like FERPA and COPPA, many states have enacted their own laws aimed at protecting student data. For example, California’s SOPIPA prohibits operators of K-12 school websites or services from using collected personal information for targeted advertising purposes. Similarly, New York State Education Law 2-d mandates that educational agencies establish strict security measures to safeguard student data.
2. 7 Best practices for student data security and privacy compliance
Conduct regular student data privacy audits
Conducting regular data privacy audits is one of the most crucial steps school leaders can take to ensure student data security. These audits help identify any gaps in data privacy compliance—for example, evaluating whether the school is complying with the applicable laws and regulations related to student data privacy, such as FERPA, COPPA, and state data breach notification laws.
The audits can also test the effectiveness of existing security measures, and create plans for improvements. Led by a qualified third-party auditor, this involves assessing both the physical security of the data storage systems and the security of the data itself (including password policies, encryption, firewalls, two-factor authentication, and physical security measures) to highlight any potential risks and vulnerabilities.
Limit access to student data
Limiting access to student data is another essential best practice for school leaders. Access control is essential for data protection, and schools should adopt a need-to-know approach. Only authorized personnel should have access to student data; even then, they should be required to have unique login credentials. There should also be written mandates in place guiding the use of student data for legitimate educational purposes.
School leaders can also segment student data usage based on job titles. For example, teachers should only have access to their student’s academic records—while school administrators might be authorized to access broader demographic data.
Use secure data storage and encryption
Secure data storage and encryption are critical components of student data privacy. To prevent unauthorized access and data breaches, schools should adopt a data storage policy that ensures the use of secure servers, backup systems, and data encryption technologies.
Encryption scrambles data in a way that means it can’t be read without the proper decryption key. By encrypting sensitive data, school leaders can ensure that any unauthorized access to the data would be useless.
School leaders should also store student data on secure servers protected by firewalls. Firewalls are essential for preventing unauthorized users from accessing school networks and systems. They act as barriers between the internal network and external threats, allowing only approved traffic to pass through while blocking potentially harmful connections.
When choosing secure data storage solutions that meet industry data protection standards, selecting a provider with strong encryption and appropriate security controls is vital.
Implement two-factor authentication
Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security measure that adds an extra layer of protection to data access. This process requires a user to provide two pieces of information to access the data, like a password and a fingerprint, or a code sent to a mobile device. By implementing two-factor authentication, school leaders can reduce the risk of unauthorized access to student data.
Provide data security training
It’s essential to provide regular training to all staff members on data security protocols and procedures. By educating staff members on data security best practices, school leaders can ensure everyone is complying with the regulations.
This could include developing a comprehensive training program that covers the essential topics related to data security, such as password policies, encryption, data handling, and data breach response—and distilling these topics into mandatory training sessions, conducted at least once a year.
Through data security training, school leaders can help build a culture of security throughout the school. When staff members understand the importance of data security, they’re more likely to take it seriously.
Obtain parental consent
It’s crucial that school leaders get parental consent before collecting, processing, and storing student data—especially for sensitive information like medical records or behavioral data. This consent should be specific, informed, and written. It should also clearly outline the types of data being collected, how the data will be used, and who will have access to it. Obtaining parental consent won’t just ensure legal compliance, but also help build trust between the school and the parents.
Follow data retention policies
Data retention policies govern how long student data should be kept. Retaining data for too long increases the risk of a data breach, and disposing of it incorrectly could result in privacy violations. So it’s important to get it right.
School leaders should adopt a data retention policy outlining how long student data should be stored, the circumstances under which it should be deleted, and how ofit should be disposed of. The policy has to comply with the law.
Bonus best practice: Content filters
Content filters are crucial in maintaining student data privacy by restricting access to inappropriate websites and monitoring online activity. They help protect students from exposure to harmful content, while ensuring their personal information remains secure from online hackers.
3. Key takeaways
As K-12 schools increasingly shift towards digital platforms, data security, and privacy compliance are more critical than ever. To safeguard against unauthorized disclosure or dissemination of minors’ personal information, schools need a combination of firewalls, content filters, network segmentation strategies, endpoint protection mechanisms, cloud security solutions, robust processes, and training programs.
By adopting the seven best practices outlined in this blog post, schools can implement an effective data protection policy and mitigate the risk of data breaches and cyber-attacks. Ultimately, a strong data protection policy earns the trust of both parents and students—and creates a safe and secure learning environment.