Student privacy laws: protecting confidentiality and rights

Understand the main student privacy laws that keep data safe and protect students’ rights. From online information to classroom activities.

June 28, 2024

In the past, maintaining student privacy was a matter of locking records in a filing cabinet. Now, in the digital classroom era, schools must ensure a secure environment to keep students’ data safe and maintain compliance with updated student privacy laws.

Students today are immersed in technology from their first day of kindergarten through college or vocational training. Whether they're using a computer in a grade school lab, submitting homework online, or collaborating with teachers and parents on cloud-based platforms, technology is a huge part of their educational experience at every level.

With every keystroke on school devices or through platforms monitored by them, children provide their schools and other organizations with data that may or may not be protected by federal and state laws. 

Consequently, all the data a student generates is bound to be at risk, from their behavior on a school’s online platform (which might be inadvertently tracked by the vendor) to their educational records; recent examples of school data breaches have underscored this reality.

What student privacy laws protect their data?

In the United States, three student privacy laws have been enacted to uphold student privacy and data security: the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Different branches of the federal government administer each, and each seeks to police possible cyber dangers to minors.

FERPA: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law designed to protect the privacy of student education records. It ensures that parents have access to their children's educational records until the student turns 18 or moves on to higher education, at which point the rights transfer to the student, who then becomes known as an “eligible student.”

FERPA applies to all educational institutions and agencies that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education, covering a broad range of schools from elementary to higher education. 

Under FERPA, student education records include all records directly related to the student and maintained by the school. This can be anything from report cards to class schedules, but it doesn't include records kept by law enforcement units within schools.

When students reach 18 or attend college, they take control over their educational records. At this point, they can decide who gets access to their information. 

Schools usually need written consent from the parent or the eligible student to share these records. However, there are exceptions where consent isn't required. For example, schools can disclose records to school officials with legitimate educational interests, to other schools where the student plans to transfer, or to comply with a judicial order. 

They can also release "directory information" like a student’s name, address, or awards, unless the parent or student opts out of sharing this information.

To comply with FERPA, schools have specific responsibilities. They must notify parents and eligible students annually about their rights under FERPA. This can be done through the student handbook, a PTA newsletter, or other regular communications. Schools also need to inform families about what constitutes directory information and give them a chance to opt out of having this information disclosed.

For more details on FERPA, the Department of Education provides resources on their "Protecting Student Privacy" website. Here, students, parents, and school staff can find best practices for handling student data responsibly. The department’s video, “Student Privacy 101,” is a great place to start, and you can also check out our straightforward guide to FERPA compliance.

COPPA: Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act

‍The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 is a key student data privacy law overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). While FERPA safeguards student privacy rights within educational settings, COPPA sets strict rules for how websites and online services collect personal information from children under 13 years old. Essentially, COPPA aims to protect student confidentiality online by ensuring that:

  • Websites and apps must notify parents and obtain their consent before gathering any personal information from young users.
  • They must have a clear, easy-to-understand privacy policy that explains how data is collected and used.
  • Collected data must be kept secure and confidential, protecting young users from potential breaches.

COPPA applies broadly to all online platforms, including those run by educational institutions, that could be accessed by children under 13. This means that schools using educational apps or websites must comply with COPPA’s regulations to ensure student privacy rights are upheld.

Schools have specific responsibilities under COPPA. They can act on behalf of parents to provide consent for the use of online educational tools, provided these tools are used solely for educational purposes and not for any commercial gain. Schools must also be diligent in selecting these tools, ensuring they understand and communicate the privacy practices of each app or website to parents.

For more detailed information on COPPA and how it helps protect student confidentiality, you can check out the FTC’s comprehensive guide, “Protecting Children’s Privacy Under COPPA.”

CIPA: Children’s Internet Protection Act

‍The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000 is one of the key student data privacy laws designed to shield children from exposure to inappropriate online content. Unlike other laws that primarily address the collection and use of student information, CIPA focuses on ensuring safe internet access in educational environments.

CIPA mandates that K-12 schools and libraries, particularly those benefiting from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-rate discount program, implement specific protective measures. The E-rate program provides financial discounts on internet access and internal connections to these institutions, but in return, they must adhere to CIPA's requirements.

To comply with CIPA, schools and libraries must have a robust Internet safety policy in place. This policy must include technological protections such as web filters to block or restrict access to content that is considered obscene or harmful to minors. Compliance isn’t just about having these protections in place; institutions must also publicly disclose their Internet safety policies and hold at least one public meeting to discuss how they are implemented.

Beyond filtering content, CIPA also requires schools to monitor the online activities of minors. This monitoring helps to ensure that students are engaging in safe and appropriate online behaviors. Furthermore, under the 2012 Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, schools are obligated to educate students on how to navigate the internet responsibly. This includes teaching them about appropriate interactions on social media, handling cyberbullying, and other aspects of digital citizenship.

For more detailed guidance on complying with CIPA and information on E-rate funding, schools and libraries can consult the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC). Additionally, a comprehensive overview of CIPA is available in the “Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)” PDF guide.


These three student privacy laws, administered respectively by the Department of Education, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), seek to monitor and protect students in schools and in the commercial marketplace.

Note that the best practices briefly outlined above are simple suggestions we’ve compiled from authoritative organizations. All educational shareholders, from the institution’s management stakeholders to the students and their parents, should familiarize themselves with these student privacy laws to ensure that they or their schools are in compliance.

FAQs about student privacy laws

Let’s recap all the information with some of the most important questions:

What are the main student privacy laws in the United States?

  • FERPA ensures that parents and eligible students have control over educational records, protecting their privacy within schools.
  • COPPA focuses on safeguarding personal information collected online from children under 13 by requiring parental consent for data collection.
  • CIPA aims to protect children from harmful or obscene content on the internet by mandating filtering measures in schools and libraries that receive federal funding.

How do FERPA, COPPA, and CIPA protect student privacy and online data?

  • FERPA provides parents and students the right to access and control educational records. It prevents unauthorized disclosure of these records, ensuring that personal information remains confidential and is only shared with consent or under specific conditions.
  • COPPA regulates how websites and online services can collect and use personal data from children under 13. It requires parental consent before collecting any information, ensuring that children’s data is protected and used responsibly.
  • CIPA mandates that schools and libraries implement measures to block or filter access to inappropriate online content. It also requires these institutions to have an Internet safety policy and to monitor online activities, thus protecting students from harmful content and ensuring safe online interactions.

What are the key rights students have under FERPA regarding their educational records?

  • Right to Access: Parents and eligible students have the right to inspect and review the student's educational records maintained by the school. This ensures transparency and allows families to stay informed about the student’s academic progress and personal information.
  • Right to Request Amendment: If a parent or eligible student believes that information in the records is inaccurate or misleading, they can request that the school correct it. This right helps maintain the accuracy and integrity of educational records.
  • Right to Control Disclosures: FERPA requires schools to obtain written consent from parents or eligible students before releasing any information from a student's records, with some exceptions such as disclosures to school officials with legitimate educational interests or in response to a judicial order.
  • Right to File Complaints: Parents and eligible students can file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education if they believe their rights under FERPA have been violated. This provides a mechanism for enforcing compliance and addressing grievances.

How can schools and educational institutions ensure compliance with student privacy laws?

  • Develop Clear Policies: Establish and maintain comprehensive privacy policies that align with FERPA, COPPA, and CIPA requirements. These policies should detail how student data is collected, stored, used, and shared.
  • Educate Staff and Students: Provide training for staff on the importance of student data privacy and their responsibilities under these laws. Educating students about their privacy rights and safe online practices is equally important.
  • Obtain Necessary Consents: Ensure that parental consent is obtained before collecting or sharing student data, especially for younger students under COPPA. Schools can also act on behalf of parents for educational tools used solely for classroom purposes.
  • Implement Technical Safeguards: Use technological tools to filter and monitor online content as required by CIPA, and secure student data against unauthorized access and breaches.
  • Regular Audits and Reviews: Conduct regular audits of privacy practices and data security measures to identify and address potential vulnerabilities. Stay updated with changes in privacy laws and adjust policies and procedures accordingly.

What steps can parents take to safeguard their children’s online privacy in accordance with these laws?

  • Understand the Laws: Familiarize yourself with FERPA, COPPA, and CIPA to understand your rights and how these laws protect your child's privacy. Knowing these can help you advocate effectively for your child’s data privacy.
  • Monitor Online Activities: Keep an eye on the websites and apps your child uses. Ensure they are age-appropriate and compliant with COPPA’s requirements for collecting personal information from children under 13.
  • Educate Your Child: Teach your child about safe online behaviors and the importance of protecting personal information. Encourage them to think critically about what they share online and with whom.
  • Communicate with Schools: Stay informed about the school’s data privacy policies and practices. Don’t hesitate to ask how your child’s data is being used and protected. Use your FERPA rights to access and review their educational records.
  • Use Privacy Settings: Utilize the privacy settings on your child’s devices and the platforms they use to control what information is shared and who can access it.

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