On December 13, 2013, Fordham Law School’s Center on Law and Information Policy published a study (Study) that paints a sobering picture of how many public schools across the country handle student data, particularly with respect to data they store and services they (and students) use in the “cloud.” There is little doubt that many school districts are strapped for cash and, indeed, utilizing cloud services provides a new opportunity for significant cost savings. However, according to the Study, some basic, low-cost safeguards to protect the data of the children attending these public school are not in place.

For example, some of the Study’s key findings include:

  • 95% of districts rely on cloud services for a diverse range of functions including data mining related to student performance, support for classroom activities, student guidance, data hosting, as well as special services such as cafeteria payments and transportation planning,
  • only 25% of districts inform parents of their use of cloud services,
  • 20% of districts fail to have policies governing the use of online services, and
  • with respect to contracts negotiated by districts with cloud service providers
    • they generally do not provide for data security and allow vendors to retain student information in perpetuity,
    • fewer than 25% specify the purpose for disclosures of student information,
    • fewer than 7% restrict the sale or marketing of student information, and
    • many districts have significant gaps in their contract documentation.

A data  breach can be significant for any organization, and school districts are not immune. Parents are also beginning to pressure districts for more action, particularly as children can be an attractive target for identity theft.

The Fordham Study provides a number of helpful recommendations for public school districts. Indeed, based on the Study and consistent with basic data privacy and security principles (not to mention FERPA and other laws concerning the safeguarding of student data), there seems to be quite a bit of low-hanging fruit school districts can use to address the risks identified. These include, for example, establishing basic, written privacy policies and procedures that apply to cloud and similar services, implementing more thorough vetting of vendors handling sensitive personal information, and adopting and implementing for consistent use a set of strong privacy and security contract clauses when negotiating with all vendors that will access personal and other confidential information.