A student’s rights to educational privacy in the digital age

Delaney Allen

In an age in which so many people are reliant on the internet, privacy is an aspect of life that can be invaded at the click of a button.

A situation involving the breach of a Colorado State University student’s educational privacy occurred Oct. 13 when Cherie Nelson, a composition teacher at CSU, posted a video on her public Instagram story that revealed several of her students’ course grades on her computer screen at the beginning. 

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The video briefly showed the computer screen before panning upward toward the sky, showcasing the mild weather in comparison to the snows earlier that week.

“I inadvertently panned over my computer screen, making visible the names (whole or partial) of students in a course I teach, as well as a few of their grades on individual homework assignments,” Nelson said of the video.

Nelson was not made aware that names were visible in the video until the evening of Oct. 14, after the post expired from public view.

“Ms. Nelson made an inadvertent mistake when she captured the image on her laptop at the time she recorded the video,” said Dell Rae Ciaravola, public safety and risk communications manager at CSU. “She immediately took action to correct the mistake by connecting with her supervisor and department head upon learning what had been shared on her Instagram account.”

Nelson has since apologized, deleted her Instagram account and contacted the impacted students to minimize the harm that was inadvertently caused by the video.

“I apologize for this incident,” Nelson said in a statement. “While it was unintentional, I recognize that this has the potential to negatively impact my students, and I’m sorry for any harm it has caused them.”

The most powerful influence over student privacy is FERPA. It governs student privacy here at CSU.” -Dell Rae Ciaravola, public safety and risk communications manager, CSU

An event like this brings to question how common it is for professors or University officials to accidentally disclose student information to the wrong parties and what consequences they face.  

“The most powerful influence over student privacy is FERPA,” Ciaravola said. “It governs student privacy here at CSU.”

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The most common third party involved in a privacy breach other than the student and the University itself is the student’s parent or guardian.

Parents only have certain rights over a student’s educational records until the child reaches 18 years old. Schools and universities must have written permission from the student in order to release any information from a student’s educational record.

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Many students may be unaware of the rights they have to privacy under FERPA. However, schools are required to annually notify students and parents of any changes to FERPA to ensure students are aware of their right to privacy.

In the event that a student believes their right to educational privacy has been violated, that student may issue a FERPA complaint form and include specific information as to the nature of the violation.

General information, as well as FAQs about FERPA, is available on the U.S. Department of Education website.

Delaney Allen can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @DelaneyAllen0.