Senators Announce Plans to Offer Student Privacy Protection Amendment

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U.S. Senators Richard C. Shelby, R-AL, and Christopher Dodd, D-CT, announced plans this week to offer an amendment to an education bill currently on the Senate floor that would require all schools receiving Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds to require parental consent before collecting information from students for commercial purposes.


Dodd and Shelby will attach the amendment -- called the Student Privacy Protection Act -- to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act currently under consideration in the Senate. The Senate bill is scheduled to be voted on next week.


The amendment establishes a process that ensures informed parental consent. It requires school districts to either seek parental signed permission for marketers to survey students and collect marketing information from them, or have school boards announce the marketers' plans at open meetings. The amendment, which also allows schools to seek federal funds to facilitate providing parental notification, also applies to situations where marketers receive anonymous information with no student names.


Specifically, parents must be informed, in writing, of the data that will be disclosed about their children, including: whether such data is personally identifiable; to which person or entity the data will be disclosed; the manner in which such person or entity will use the data; the amount of class time, if any, that will be consumed by gathering/disclosing the information; and the dollar amount, if any, provided to the school under the agreement.


"More and more, schools are being perceived not just as centers for learning, but centers for consumer research," Dodd said in a statement. "Our children should be instilled with knowledge, not tapped for information on their spending habits. Their privacy, and that of their parents, should be respected, not exploited."


Shelby said that "the need for this amendment stems from the fact that a large number of marketing companies are going into classrooms and using class time to gather information concerning school-aged children. In most cases, parents are not directly informed of these activities. We believe that this is wrong."


Dodd agreed and said classrooms are increasingly being turned into centers for consumer research since financial constraints have forced many schools to turn to corporations to supplement existing resources, provide new equipment or sponsor student activities. In return, these companies ask for market research data about students.


Dodd mentioned some examples: Elementary school students in New Jersey filled out a 27-page booklet recently called "My All About Me Journal" as part of a marketing survey for a cable television channel; a technology firm is currently providing schools with free computers and Internet access, but at the same time is monitoring students' Web activity by age, gender and ZIP code; and children in a Massachusetts school recently took part in a cereal taste test and answered an opinion poll.


The act, however, would greatly limit direct marketers' ability to use schools as a resource to collect marketing information -- and could ultimately effect their ability to market any products in any schools anywhere.


"The act has a chilling effect on school boards who will not want to do anything that may jeapordize the funds they rely on for their budgets," said Garry Myers, chief executive officer, Highlights for Children, Columbus, OH, a children's magazine company that regularly mails subscription cards to teachers in elementarily schools who pass them on to students and then parents -- who must sign off on the subscriptions. "The people in the schools will be so concerned about the possibility that they might do something wrong and violate the act --which is a very subtle provision -- that they may not allow any marketing of any kind in the school. Everything that is commercial will be affected very negatively."


In addition, Myers said that the bill is dangerous because it eliminates the local decision- making authority surrounding marketing issues that exists today in the school system.


The Dodd-Shelby bill is a companion to legislation Rep. George Miller, D-CA, has introduced in the House of Representatives. The House Education and the Workforce Committee included Miller's bill as a part of their version of the ESEA reauthorization.


"Consistent with a long line of privacy protections for kids, such as the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, our legislation would ensure that data collected for commercial purposes is done so with parental consent," Shelby said.
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