Privacy is a key component in ensuring student safety

With the risk of experiencing domestic violence increased during high-stress periods, educators should be aware of FERPA protections and have training in trauma-informed strategies.
By: | May 21, 2020
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Educators should be aware of the potential for increased cases in domestic violence that can affect housed and homeless families alike during high-stress periods like the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) response.

During this time, local homeless education liaisons and other staff should be especially cognizant of the privacy rights of students experiencing homelessness throughout the process of identifying, enrolling, and serving them and their families.

Information about a homeless student’s living situation is fully protected as an education record under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC 1232g), according to Section 722(g)(3)(G) of McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act, Pub. L. No. 114-95.

Schools should ask the parents or the student for their permission prior to sharing information about their homeless status with teachers or other school staff. A student’s living status is protected as an education record under FERPA. Carelessly disclosing such information can expose students and families to stigma and put their safety at risk.

School districts should train teachers, counselors, and other staff to employ trauma-informed strategies with all students.

SchoolHouse Connection suggests that, when providing professional development to teachers, secretaries, administrators, counselors, bus drivers, security guards, and others, liaisons should model sensitivity toward survivors of domestic violence and explain the legal requirements of McKinney-Vento and FERPA.

SchoolHouse Connection’s “6 Things to Know About Privacy, FERPA, and Homelessness” offers the following best practices to keep children and families safe:

Ensure that parents understand that, without a court order or restraining order, both parents can access school records.

Identify agencies in the community that help domestic violence survivors obtain restraining or civil protection orders and refer survivors to those agencies, making sure school and district staff know about the order.

Ensure that all school personnel who might be contacted by an alleged abuser are informed about the importance of confidentiality. School personnel should not provide information from education records over the phone, for example, because it is not possible to verify the caller’s identity or right to access the records.

Transfer records through the state attorney general’s office or the Office of the State Homeless Education Coordinator to help prevent alleged abusers from determining the school a student attends. Schools can set up a “shadow school” using a staff member’s office as the child’s school address so that information passes through that individual, according to the SchoolHouse Connection best-practices paper.

Work with local domestic violence shelters and other community providers to inquire about and determine strategies and procedures to protect survivors of domestic violence.

Suggest to families the possibility of enrolling students under generic or assumed names to further protect their privacy and provide for their safety.

In general, schools must obtain “signed and dated written consent” before disclosing personally identifiable information contained in a student’s education record. 34 CFR 99.30.

SchoolHouse Connection recommends that school districts offer parents, eligible students (over 18 years old), and unaccompanied youths the opportunity to opt out of the release of directory information as it can be harmful to students experiencing homelessness (34 CFR 99.37). Rule 34 CFR 99.3 defines directory information as information contained in a student’s education record, such as a student’s name, address, and telephone listing, that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed.

Johnny Jackson covers homeless and at-risk students and other Title I issues for ESEA Now, a DA sister publication.