Less than a week before the first day of class for the Cincinnati Public Schools, the district mistakenly emailed to parents the names, addresses, bus schedule and other information for thousands of students.
The emails sent to CPS parents were supposed to have information about their child's busing schedule. But several hundred of the emails also contained personal info, including names, bus stop locations and pick-up times, of other children.
In our rush to use notification technology to keep parents and other members of the school community informed, unfortunately such errors can result. The inadvertently released email containing private details for 7,000 students underscores how releasing private information about your students can be just a mistaken mouse click away.
A school safety PR disaster looms
While no lockdown or – God forbid – gunman was involved, this is nonetheless a school safety issue. Vulnerability and breaches in student privacy are no way to engender trust in your school. Like it’s not a big enough PR challenge for schools to deal with more dramatic school safety issues or rising dropout and falling graduation rates, now they have to battle news stories such as these which depict how students’ personal data was accidentally sent to others’ families.
Thankfully, while other sensitive information was not sent, the district, which was flooded with complaints, nevertheless exposed several hundred children to danger. School officials determined the error was due to a “bug” in the program used to generate the e-mails. “Bug” sounds so innocuous.
This is not the first time, of course, the specter of student privacy breaches reared its ugly head. Just ask Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and how that social media giant continues to wrestle with student privacy issues. Not so innocuous, right?
The challenge of automating communications
Seems the more access and dependence we have to technology to automate and simplify our tasks, we become vulnerable to whole new sets of problems when technology fails us. The Cincinnati Public Schools email SNAFU is case in point.
Some school notification systems, such as the Campus Suite notifications center, have email communications built right in. Some solutions enable school communicators to create, schedule and send not only emails but text and voice messages, Facebook messenger texts, social media posts and website banner postings from one central dashboard.
Minimize your risk of privacy breaches
In conjunction with a school’s SIS (Student Information System) in which parent contact information and other private information is contained, permissions for notifications can be controlled and streamlined. Check to make sure your SIS and notification systems have protective measures in place to avoid privacy mishaps.
One safeguard is to create a school notifications opt-in page for instant approvals. Additionally, sign up and login should be simple, with parents being able to use the same login information they use for their SIS portal. Parents and all users should also be able to set up their own preferences to select any additional information they want to receive. Parents should also always be given the opportunity to opt-out of receiving digital notifications, which of course places an added burden on the school to make sure critical content reaches the non-digital community.
I will guarantee this won’t be the last breach of private information a school district experiences. The faster we all demand information, the more we depend and insist on real-time results and answers to our questions.
The less patient we become when we are neither satisfied or gratified, the pressure to deliver information fast will likely always create privacy problems.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.