Your children’s school could be giving away their information

WASHINGTON — The back-to-school routine involves a crush of forms and permission slips for parents to sign. And they’re all important, but one could be critical for you and your child’s privacy, and even safety.

“Schools are allowed by federal law to share or sell directory information about their students with anyone, including data brokers and marketing companies, unless they have a parental opt-out form on file,” NBC News Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum tells WTOP.

This means parents, and even students, are subject to “a torrent of advertising, or worse — you know, this is just the sort of information a stalker, abuser, predator or identity thief needs.”

Parents and children who have fled abusive situations are particularly at risk, Weisbaum says.

Directory information includes information such as home address, email address, telephone number, date and place of birth, height, weight, clubs or sports teams, even a photograph.

“And after the school releases this data, it is then considered to be public information, and you’ve lost control of it.”

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires any public school, or any other school that receives any tax money, to provide parents with an opt-out form that gives parents the chance to see what information the school has about their kids, and to block or limit access to it.

But in the crush of back-to-school activity, and all its attendant forms, the FERPA form is easy to miss. And sometimes schools don’t make it easy to find — they often “bury the FERPA form in the back-to-school booklets they give out, or only post it on the website where it can be easily missed,” Weisbaum says.

You only have a few weeks to fill it out, he adds, and it needs to be filled out every year.

“So if you didn’t get that form, or you can’t find the form, contact your district right away,” Weisbaum says.

If you miss the window this year, you don’t get to restrict the flow of information about you and your kids until next year.

“Congress will be working to update this FERPA law, and it really needs to be done,” Weisbaum says, “but in the meantime you’ve got to protect yourself.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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