Compliance

Securing Student Data: Your Complete Guide to FERPA Compliance

FERPA is a bit like the 'Marauder's Map' from Harry Potter - in the wrong hands, student information could cause havoc, but in the right hands, it can guide.

May 17, 2023

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, often known by its acronym FERPA, is a vital piece of legislation safeguarding the privacy of student educational records. At its core, it's about striking a delicate balance between the right to access educational information and the right to privacy. If you've ever asked yourself "What is FERPA?" you're about to gain some clarity.

FERPA is not just a law, but a cornerstone in the education sector. Its significance can't be overstated, particularly for educational institutions that handle sensitive student information daily. It's a bit like the 'Marauder's Map' from the Harry Potter series - in the wrong hands, student information could cause havoc, but in the right hands, it can guide institutions towards a more secure and privacy-respecting environment.

What is FERPA and why is it important?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act was established to protect the privacy of student education records and offers parents and students certain protections with respect to their educational data. This pivotal legislation was enacted as educational institutions increasingly became the targets of data breaches, putting the sensitive information of students at risk. However, despite the presence of FERPA, educational organizations, including schools and universities, are still facing a rising tide of cyber threats, necessitating a more robust response to data security.

According to a 2022 report by Sophos, ransomware attacks on education have seen a significant uptick, with 56% of lower education organizations and 64% of higher education organizations experiencing such an attack within the last year. These figures represent a considerable increase from the previous year, revealing the escalating cyber risk environment in the education sector. More worryingly, the report suggests that the education sector is poorly prepared to fend off ransomware attacks, with data encryption rates in successful attacks being higher than the global average. This underscores the importance of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in safeguarding student data and highlights the urgent need for educational institutions to bolster their cyber defenses to ensure FERPA compliance and secure their students' data.

Understanding FERPA Requirements

Understanding the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is paramount for any educational institution or agency that handles student education records. This understanding ensures they are equipped to protect student privacy and comply with the law. The FERPA law is multi-faceted, with several key aspects to consider.

Overview of the rights under FERPA

One of the central tenets of FERPA is the rights it confers to students and parents. These rights primarily revolve around access to educational records and control over their disclosure. They can be distilled into three primary rights according to the U.S. Department of Education:

  1. Right to Access: Students or their parents have the right to inspect and review the student's education records maintained by the school. This allows transparency in educational progress and decisions made about the student's education.
  2. Right to Request Amendment: If a student or their parent believes that information in the education records is inaccurate or misleading, they can ask the school to correct it. This safeguards the accuracy of educational records.
  3. Right to Consent to Disclosures: Schools generally must have written permission from the student or eligible parent to release any information from a student's education record. This protects the privacy of the student.

Who is covered by FERPA?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act applies to all educational agencies and institutions that receive funds under any program administered by the Department of Education. This includes:

  1. Public Schools and Districts: These entities receive federal funds and thus are required to comply with FERPA.
  2. Private and Parochial Schools: While these are generally not subject to FERPA, if they receive federal funds, they are required to comply.
  3. Colleges and Universities: Both public and private post-secondary institutions must adhere to FERPA if they receive federal funding.
  4. State and Local Education Authorities: These entities typically receive federal education funds and therefore must comply with FERPA.
  5. Third-Party Service Providers: Any organization or individual that provides services to schools and has access to educational records must comply with FERPA's requirements.
Row of computers in a classroom
Students are constantly digitalizing their data, so it's in the best interest of educational organizations to safeguard and protect it against breaches and violations.

What is covered under FERPA?

FERPA protects the privacy of student education records. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, education records are defined as records that are directly related to a student or that can be used to identify said student, and that are maintained by an educational agency or institution, or by a party acting on their behalf. Here are the main types of records that are protected underthis act:

  1. Academic Records: This includes grades, transcripts, class lists, student course schedules, and academic disciplinary records. These records detail the academic history and progress of the student.
  2. Student Identifying Information: This refers to personally identifiable information (PII) such as a student's name, the names of the student's parents or other family members, the address of the student or student's family, and personal identifiers such as a social security number, student number, or biometric record.
  3. Special Education Records: These records contain information related to a student’s special education program, including individualized education plans (IEPs), psychological evaluations, progress reports, and other records related to special education services.
  4. Disciplinary Records: These records document any disciplinary action taken against the student. This may include suspensions, expulsions, or other disciplinary measures.
  5. Health Records: Records related to a student's health data, including immunization records, medicine administration records, nurse visit logs, and other health-related information, provided the treatment is given by a practitioner who is also an employee of the educational institution.
  6. Counseling Records: Notes and reports from a school counseling office may also be considered part of the education record, as long as they are used for purposes other than the personal memory aid of the maker of the record.
  7. Student Financial Records: This includes any information related to a student's financial aid or payment records.

It's important to note that there are some exceptions to what is considered an education record under FERPA. For example, law enforcement unit records, employee records (when employment is not contingent on being a student), and records of alumni after they are no longer students at the institution are not considered education records under this act.

FERPA Compliance Checklist

Ensuring FERPA compliance is an ongoing responsibility for all educational institutions and agencies. To help streamline this process, we've compiled a simple checklist that can serve as a starting point for your compliance efforts.

  1. Understand FERPA Rights: Familiarize yourself with the rights conferred by FERPA and the responsibilities it places on institutions.
  2. Create Policies and Procedures: Develop clear policies and procedures for handling student educational records in accordance with FERPA.
  3. Train Staff: Regularly train all staff members who have access to student records on FERPA requirements and your institution's policies.
  4. Monitor Compliance: Regularly review and audit your institution's practices to ensure ongoing compliance.
  5. Manage Third-Party Providers: Ensure any third-party service providers who have access to student records are aware of and comply with FERPA requirements.
  6. Establish a Response Plan: Have a plan in place to respond to any potential violations of FERPA, including notifying affected parties and taking corrective action.

A handy checklist summarizing the steps to FERPA compliance

This checklist serves as a practical guide to FERPA compliance, helping institutions understand and implement the necessary steps. Here's a simplified step-by-step approach:

Familiarize with FERPA

Ensure that everyone in your organization understands what FERPA is and why it is important.

Create and Implement Policies

Develop clear, written policies and procedures for handling and securing student records in accordance with FERPA.

Train your staff

Conduct regular training sessions to keep all staff up-to-date with FERPA rights and your organization's policies.

Monitor and Audit

Regularly check your organization's practices to ensure ongoing compliance. This could include internal audits or reviews.

Manage Third-Party Providers

Monitor any third-party service providers who handle student records to ensure they are also in compliance with FERPA.

Plan for Violations

Have a clear, written plan in place detailing the steps to be taken if a FERPA violation occurs.

Implementing Technological Solutions for FERPA Compliance

As educational institutions increasingly digitize student records and other data, and because of that, it's critical that they leverage technology to help with FERPA compliance. Technology can play a crucial role in ensuring the privacy of student data and providing necessary safeguards to protect against data breaches.

Importance of Data Security

Data security is the backbone of being compliant with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Educational institutions must ensure they have robust measures in place to protect sensitive student information. This includes implementing robust access controls, ensuring data encryption, and deploying robust data protection measures.

Ensuring Data Privacy in Educational Institutions

Data privacy in educational institutions isn't just about protecting against external threats. It also involves controlling who within the institution has access to student records. Role-based access control systems can limit access to sensitive data only to those who need it for their job roles. In addition, regular audits can help identify and rectify any unauthorized access or misuse of data.

Encryption and Data Protection Measures

Encryption is a key data protection measure for educational institutions. It involves encoding data in a way that only authorized parties can access it. Educational institutions should use encryption both for data at rest (stored data) and data in transit (data being transferred).

In addition to encryption, educational institutions should also consider other data protection measures. This could include secure backups to protect against data loss, firewalls to protect against unauthorized access, and antivirus software to protect against malware.

Device Tracking and FERPA Compliance

With educational devices often containing sensitive student data, device tracking becomes a crucial aspect of FERPA compliance. Device tracking can help locate teachers's lost or stolen devices and ensure compliance with your 1:1 program policies.

The Need for Device Tracking in Educational Institutions

Device tracking isn't just about locating lost or stolen devices. It can also play a crucial role in monitoring that devices are used in compliance with institutional policies. For instance, device tracking can help ensure devices loaned to students or staff are returned on time and used only for their intended purpose.

Consider the case where a device containing sensitive student data is lost or stolen. Without device tracking, the data could fall into the wrong hands, leading to a FERPA violation. With device tracking, the institution can locate the device and, in some cases, remotely wipe the data to prevent unauthorized access.

Security Policies for Educational Devices to Ensure Compliance

To ensure compliance with FERPA, educational institutions should have clear security policies in place for all educational devices. These policies should cover aspects like acceptable use, data storage and transfer, device tracking, loan policies, and procedures for reporting lost or stolen devices.

In another case, a student fails to return a loaned device after the loan period ends. With device tracking, the institution can locate the device and take necessary action to ensure its return. This not only ensures the device's safe return but also compliance with the institution's equipment loan policy.

Achieving FERPA Compliance with Prey

Prey is a device security solution designed not only for device tracking but also for enhancing data security within educational institutions. By offering features such as remote device locking and data wiping, it plays a crucial role in protecting sensitive student data, which is a fundamental aspect of achieving FERPA compliance.

While Prey can generate missing device reports that may include capturing a picture, this potential FERPA concern can be effectively managed. This feature can be disabled by default and activated only during a security incident, thereby safeguarding student privacy while still providing robust device security. Through careful management and conscious use, educational institutions can leverage Prey to maintain FERPA compliance while protecting their digital assets.

Kids using a mobile device at school being compliant with FERPA
Using apps with MDM capabilities like Prey will help organizations protect the information of students and stay compliant with FERPA requirements.

Data Breaches and violations under FERPA

Understanding the nuances between data breaches and FERPA violations is crucial for any educational institution. A data breach refers to an incident where unauthorized individuals gain access to confidential data, whereas a FERPA violation refers to the failure of an educational institution to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act's requirements, which could include improperly disclosing student records.

Data breaches under FERPA may include:

  1. Unauthorized Access: When an unauthorized person gains access to student records, it constitutes a data breach. This can happen due to weak access control measures, hacking, or even physical theft of records.
  2. Data Leakage: If confidential student data is exposed unintentionally, it is considered a data breach. This could be due to technical issues, human error, or ineffective data handling policies.
  3. Improper Disposal: If student records are not properly disposed of and can be accessed by unauthorized individuals, it is a data breach.

FERPA violations can occur in various forms:

  1. Disclosure without Consent: If an educational institution discloses a student's education records without the written consent of the student or eligible parent, it's a FERPA violation.
  2. Failure to Provide Access: If an institution fails to provide a student or eligible parent with an opportunity to inspect and review the student's education records, it is a FERPA violation.
  3. Improper Maintenance of Records: FERPA requires institutions to maintain certain types of records, including requests for access and reasons for disclosure. Failure to maintain these records is a violation.

Real-world examples of FERPA violations and breaches include:

  1. In 2017, the University of Oklahoma inadvertently exposed thousands of students' educational records when they were mistakenly emailed to families, marking a significant FERPA violation.
  2. OU shuts down file sharing service after failing to protect thousands of students' records, Oudaily.com
  3. In 2015, Harvard University experienced a data breach involving eight of its colleges and administrations, potentially exposing sensitive student information and violating FERPA. Reference.
  4. Harvard Reveals It Had An IT Breach In June Impacting 8 Colleges And Administrations, Techcrunch.com

Takeaways

Ensuring FERPA compliance is an intricate but essential responsibility for educational institutions. It requires a comprehensive understanding of the law, the right technological tools, and a commitment to uphold student privacy. The use of technology, like Prey, plays a significant role in enhancing compliance, yet it's just one piece of the puzzle. Regular staff training, clear policies, and frequent audits are equally important.

While achieving FERPA compliance may seem as daunting as battling the dark forces of Lord Voldemort, it is not an insurmountable task. It's an ongoing commitment to the privacy and rights of students, reminiscent of the dedication displayed by Harry Potter and his friends in their fight for justice. And much like the repercussions of succumbing to dark magic, failing to comply with FERPA can have severe consequences. Hence, it's essential to navigate this journey with diligence and persistence, for the trust and confidence it instills in students and their families is truly invaluable.

On the same Issue

Three crucial online student privacy laws

Get a deep understanding of the main student privacy laws that keep data safe in the digital classroom. Learn how these regulations work and what they mean.

September 28, 2023
keep reading
Simplify SOC 2 Compliance: A Comprehensive Guide for IT & MSP teams

In a world where "the cloud" isn't just a reference to where Simba's dad lives in "The Lion King", but a critical infrastructure for many organizations, SOC 2 compliance is vital

May 24, 2023
keep reading
Navigating IT governance: a comprehensive guide to frameworks and benefits

IT governance: frameworks, benefits, and choosing the right one. Learn more for effective IT management.

May 9, 2023
keep reading
GLBA Compliance Checklist: An In-Depth View of the Safeguards Rule

In 2023, a cyberattack happens every 39 seconds, and security posture is only getting more critical for businesses. Know how getting compliant will help you stay safe.

May 9, 2023
keep reading