Public School Students’ Rights of Privacy

Children's safety and well-being make most of us believe that parents have the right to know everything about their young ones.

Conversely, children aren't the property of their parents. To some, the idea that guardians are legally entitled to know everything about their sons and daughters might seem oppressive.

These thought processes are both valid but conflict with each other.

We see teachers and other education personnel acquire personal information about students every day. Sometimes it's through more passive means, such as overhearing chatter. In different scenarios, it can be more coercive, such as employing surveys and psychological evaluations.

As we review the murky waters involved with the disclosure, or lack thereof, of a students information, we’ll review the following article: Emily Gold Waldman, Show and Tell: Students’ Personal Lives, Schools, and Parents, 47 Conn. L. Rev. 699 (2015).

Does a child’s right to privacy outweigh a parent's right to know what's happening with their child, so they can parent to the best of their abilities? It's a tricky question to answer. As described in the above-referenced article, the two sets of privacy interests seem to conflict with one another.

Read on, as we analyze the research paper's findings, and we examine a public-school student's rights of privacy.

How Two California Rulings Created Confusion on Student Privacy

The article we are covering opens with two different scenarios that occurred in California, both including school students.

First, a 16-year-old girl, Charlene Nguon, and her mother attempted to sue a school principal who had suspended her for public displays of affection.

In this scenario, the principal took it upon himself to disclose to the mother that the young lady had a girlfriend. This disclosure happened without Charlene's consent, who felt her rights to personal privacy were violated.

Her lawsuit was unsuccessful.

On the other end of the spectrum, during the same week, another sixteen-year-old girl – named Melissa Anspach – lost her case to a public health center. She had acquired the morning after pill from the facility, who didn't notify her parents.

Melissa felt her parents were robbed of the right to direct the upbringing of their child.

Her lawsuit was also unsuccessful.

Placing these scenarios side-by-side shows inconsistencies in how the government feels about students' privacy. The ambiguous nature of the rules calls for schools and other governing bodies to proceed with caution in these kinds of situations.

The Federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA)

The PPRA was introduced in 1974 and amended in 2002 because of the "No Child Left Behind" act.

Here's what the PPRA entails:

Students can't be forced – without parental consent – to provide information through surveys, analysis, or evaluation that says anything about their own, or their family's:

  • Political beliefs
  • Problems
  • Sex behaviors
  • Other personal matters

However, in cases when schools have extracted personal information from students, the PPRA hasn't had much impact.

One specific problem is how the PPRA doesn't clarify whether informal interactions fall under the umbrella of surveys, analysis, and evaluations. Beyond that, there isn't any private enforcement of the measures being mandated in this act.

So, when there have been issues with information extraction at schools, they have focused on constitutional claims. More specifically, these kinds of lawsuits generally entail informational privacy theory, familial privacy theory, or both.

Unfortunately, this doesn't dispel any vagueness, and neither theory holds much weight in these lawsuits.

Discussing Informational Privacy and Familial Privacy

Informational Privacy

A prior court ruling suggests that informational privacy rights exist. Still, the court have not provided much detail on what necessitates a violation.

The ruling in question occurred in New York and had to do with a database of prescription drug users. It was ruled their privacy rights weren't being violated due to protection against further public disclosure.

We saw this issue come to light in two other cases, one involving President Nixon and his illegal recordings. It was ruled that his right to privacy was outweighed by the “public's interest in the preservation of presidential materials.”

Another time this came to light involved NASA. It was decided that the organization could do background checks on contract staff.

Both rulings seem to show disregard toward personal privacy at a high level. It’s no wonder that institutions are well-protected when parents and children push back.

Familial Privacy

Familial privacy's lineage is well over a century old. It's described in the First Circuit: "the due process right of parental autonomy might be considered a subset of a broader substantive due process right of familial privacy."

The problems here seem to stem from parents protecting children from the community, and the community protecting children from bad parenting.

The Tight-Rope Walk of Information Extraction From Students

In Wyatt v. Fletcher, a student was interrogated by her teachers over having a sexual relationship with another female. They threatened her with claims she'd not be able to play until she told her mother about both her sexual orientation and the relationship.

However, in many instances, educators aren't trying to probe for information with any ill intent. At the end of the day, though, students are still young and impressionable. Educational staff wields a lot of power and influence over them, and even the kindest, most selfless teacher can make a student feel they have to provide information.

One example is how one student initially kept refusing to take a pregnancy test but took the test due to the persistence of her coach. Another instance saw students fill out a survey only because they felt they'd "receive a cut" if they didn’t.

Familial Rights Don't Hold Much Weight in the Classroom

The validity of familial rights can be outlined by one specific decision reached.

It was ruled that the familial rights of parents weren't violated when first, third, and fifth graders were subject to a psychological assessment.

Some of the information in the survey was of a sexual nature, but it was decided that the school was well within its rights to provide whatever information it wanted to the children.

Should Clearer Laws be Written?

Like much of our legal system, privacy laws regarding children are mired in ambiguity. Hopefully, the discretion and good judgment of educators prevails in the face of such uncertainty.