Don’t just hit send! 5 rules to follow for digital communication

Technology can make it easier to communicate with parents and others about special education matters, but the convenience of digital communication can also lead to embarrassment and liability


ORLANDO, Fla.—Ahead of an IEP meeting, a case manager responds to an email from another district member of the IEP team, writing, “This is going to be a doozy. Get ready for a fight!” Next, the parent requests copies of all emails regarding their child.

Technology, including email, can make it easier to communicate with parents and others about special education matters, but the speed and convenience of digital communications can also lead to embarrassment as well as liability for school districts, said Dianna Bowen, partner with Thompson & Horton LLP in Dallas, during a recent session at LRP’s 40th National Institute on Legal Issues of Educating Individuals with Disabilities®.

“Schools need to make sure their communications meet the requirements of the law and are also appropriate for the sake of the relationship between the school and the parent,” explained Bowen.

She shared the following five pointers on communicating in the digital world.

  1. Take a conservative approach to emails. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), parents have the right to review the education records of their children. (Visit 34 CFR 300.613 (a) and 20 USC 1232 g(a)(4)(A) for more information.) Whether an email between staff members is considered part of a student’s education record is currently a “gray area” of the law, Bowen said. FERPA defines an education record as one that includes information directly related to a student that is maintained by the educational organization. “There are FERPA provisions that include emails as records, but there are also cases that say they are not because they’re not maintained in the student’s actual record or a permanent secure database,” Bowen said. Take the conservative approach and assume that any email containing significant information about a student is an education record, Bowen said. Print it out and keep it in the student’s file.
  2. Put important conversations in writing. A case manager might call and inform a parent that their child is not making progress, but the case manager should also follow up with written communication, Bowen said. “Having written documentation is going to save you every step of the way,” she noted. “Parents also don’t really recognize communication about their child—their progress or difficulties—until it’s documented in writing.”
  3. Don’t rely on text messages for documentation. Parents and staff might prefer text messaging, but text messages are difficult to download and save, Bowen said. “People delete their messages all the time,” she said. In addition, if a staffer uses a personal cell phone to conduct district business, that opens the door to that employee’s personal device if parents bring a lawsuit against the district, she said. Bowen recommends that educators refrain from using text messages or personal devices to communicate with parents on special education matters.

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  4. Know what information you can and should share with other school officials. District employees may disclose student information without parental consent to other school officials who have a legitimate educational interest in the information. Bus drivers, school nurses, parent volunteers and consultants could qualify as school officials. “This is one of the biggest areas where schools slip up,” Bowen said. “School staff will keep confidential information to themselves and not share it with the IEP team or others because they think they are not allowed to share it.” In reality, failing to share information about the student’s disability or medical condition with the student’s IEP team can create liability for districts, Bowen said.
  5. Understand when IDEA requires communication with parents. IDEA requires districts to communicate with parents for several reasons, including to provide notice of procedural safeguards, notice of IEP meetings and prior written notice of actions that the district proposes or refuses to take; to obtain parental consent; and to ensure parents’ meaningful participation in the IEP process. Technology can help districts meet these communication requirements and provide an electronic copy showing that parents received the notice, Bowen said. People, however, tend to be more casual in emails than in formal letters, she said. As such, remind staff to use professional language in any email communication with parents and to ensure that they include all the necessary information required under IDEA for each type of notice, she said.

Jennifer Herseim is an editor for LRP Media Group and program chair for Inclusion and Special Education at DA’s Future of Education Technology Conference.

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