Electronic Communication

The growth of the personal computer industry and the Internet has ushered in an “information age,” characterized by individual empowerment and the flattening of geographical and temporal barriers to communication and collaboration. The same technological revolutions that have transformed global society also have impacted how schools and districts operate. While the digitization of school communications has enabled a number of new possibilities for educators, it also has raised a number of legal and policy concerns, which are discussed in this entry.

Monitoring Communications

Electronic school communication can take many forms. School e-mail and instant-messaging systems, local area networks, Web sites, course management systems, and parent portals are just a few examples of the many types of school-sponsored systems that facilitate educators’ communication with internal or external audiences. Teachers and administrators may also utilize outside, non-school-sponsored services, such as search engines, blogs, wikis, online video sites, and online office software suites, to access or share information and to communicate with students, parents, or other educators.

A number of school systems allow Web site visitors to download text, graphic, audio, video, or other types of files, including policy documents, instructions for outside vendors, parent newsletters, and examples of student work. Digital communications also occur between school-owned mobile devices, such as wireless radios, cell phones, and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

One issue raised by this explosion of communication options is the ability of school officials to engage in effectively monitoring the vast array of mechanisms that educators have to communicate with each other and with institutional stakeholders. To this end, school officials have at least some obligation to monitor employee and student use of technology tools when those tools are used for professional or instructional purposes.

School organizations that disregard their supervisory responsibilities may face the legal and public relations ramifications of ignoring potential employee or student abuse of digital technologies. No school system wants to be sued or highlighted in the global news because it wasn’t effectively safeguarding its electronic communication channels or online environments from sexual harassment, cyberbullying, or exposure to age-inappropriate content. However, preventing or regulating employee usage of electronic communication tools is extremely difficult.

Keeping Records

A second concern that accompanies use of electronic communications is whether they fall under the legal definition of educational records. Federal and state laws, as well as school and board policies, typically define what types of information are considered to be formal educational records for purposes of the law. Those definitions typically are based on the document content rather than the form. This means that an individual e-mail, wiki page, or word processing document, for example, may or may not be an educational record for legal compliance purposes, depending on its content.

Files that are determined to be educational records must comply with all document retention and legal discovery rules. Recent changes in the federal rules of civil procedure emphasize that institutions must have clear polices regarding data storage, data access, and timelines for data deletion. School-related electronic communications fall under these requirements.

Further, electronic communications that are considered to be educational records must comply with federal and state data confidentiality requirements and state laws regarding openness of public records. Balancing confidentiality against openness can be extremely difficult when it comes to digital records, particularly given the relative ease with which digital files can be further distributed. For instance, an employee who receives a “confidential” instant message from another can easily forward all or part of that message on to another employee or to the world at large.

Privacy and Validity

Other legal issues associated with electronic communications relate to trustworthiness, privacy, and accessibility. Insofar as digital records can be easily manipulated or modified, educators who receive electronic documents may have no easy way of validating whether they were originals or were altered in some way. In addition, educators may have no viable mechanism for verifying the identity of purported senders. To the extent that school organizations have the ability to monitor usage of their own technology systems through mechanisms such as network usage histories and keylogging, the privacy of electronic communications may become an issue if employees or students feel that organizational monitoring becomes too intrusive.

Finally, at least some electronic communications may fall under the accessibility provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning that such communications must be reasonably accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Just as school boards have policies regarding educational records on paper, they must also have policies for electronic communications. School officials have an affirmative obligation to comply with all federal and state statutory and regulatory requirements despite the difficulties associated with monitoring and storing electronic communications, safeguarding against inappropriate release of confidential information, and ensuring accessibility for persons with disabilities. Verifying the accuracy and validity of electronic documents will increasingly be of concern to educators as “spoofing,” “phishing,” “spamming,” and other identity-masking techniques continue to evolve and intrude into school workplaces. The balance between institutional obligations to monitor electronic communications with employees’ or students’ expectations of privacy will be an ongoing discussion for decades to come.

Scott McLeod

See also Acceptable Use Policies; Children’s Internet Protection Act; Electronic Document Retention; Global Positioning System (GPS) Tracking; Internet Content Filtering; Open Records Laws; Personnel Records; Privacy Rights of Students; Privacy Rights of Teachers; Technology and the Law; United States v. American Library Association; Web Sites, Use by School Districts and Boards

Further Readings

  • Devaney, L. (2007). Poll: Schools aren’t meeting datastorage rules. Retrieved June 30, 2007, from http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=7123 
  • Electronic Privacy Information Center. (n.d.). http://www.epic.org 
  • LexisNexis. (2007). Applied discovery law library. Retrieved June 30, 2007, from http://www.lexisnexis.com/applieddiscovery