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Do you know where your student's data is going?

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Common Sense Media's Privacy Review Program Director Bill Fitzgerald shows a text from SchoolMessenger, which proves that the company had access to his phone number through Portland Public Schools before he agreed to share it. Data privacy expert Bill Fitzgerald is one of the few people on the planet who actually reads through those lengthy Terms of Service (TOS) contracts we all agree to in order to use the latest app, software or digital platform.

As a parent in the Portland Public Schools (Portland Public School) district, he hasn’t been too happy about the TOS agreements he’s seen coming home from his daughter’s school. He’s been pestering PPS over Twitter ever since the Successful Schools Survey came out in January, whose security settings he objected to.

“The access to this (information) should not be our kids getting a public education,” he said.

Fitzgerald is director of the Privacy Review Program at the advocacy group Common Sense Media, which helped this year’s passage of Oregon Senate Bill 187. The bill outlined clear restrictions on how vendors can use and store student data. But it also puts the onus on districts to make sure vendors are compliant.

“I would love to see PPS step up to be a little more transparent and be a little more proactive” said Fitzgerald, who was not personally involved in lobbying for the student privacy bill.

Fitzgerald’s concerns could have nationwide impacts as the applications he’s worried about — MySchoolBucks from Heartland Payment Systems and MobileFirst from SchoolMessenger by Reliance Communications — are used widely but with a convoluted system of oversight.

MySchool Bucks is used in the Hillsboro School District.

“There’s thousands of schools that use that service. Their data sets are pretty enormous,” Fitzgerald said.

MySchoolBucks is a web and mobile application that allows parents to electronically pay for student lunches.

After three weeks of public records requests, the Portland Tribune failed to uncover the source of a contract with MySchoolBucks, though Portland Public Schools has made a total of $5,046 in payments to Heartland Payment Systems for support materials.

Hillsboro School District Chief Information Officer Don Wolff said Hillsboro contracts directly with MySchool Bucks.

Fitzgerald, who travels around the country consulting on technology contract oversight, said many school districts post their contracts openly on their websites.

Hillsboro does not, Wolff said, but contracts are available to the public upon request.

For its part, Heartland Payment Systems officials said the organization doesn’t work with third-party businesses.

“We do not share or sell any data to third parties,” company spokesman Kevin Petschow wrote in an email. “References to ‘business partners,’ as noted in our privacy policy, are currently those school districts that we work with. We encourage them to adopt and post their own privacy policies.”

But Heartland’s privacy policy for the software seems to directly contradict what Petschow describes as their business model.

“Business Partners” means, collectively, third parties with whom we conduct business, such as merchants, marketers or other companies,” read the MySchoolBucks privacy policy.

Then, later, the policy states:

“We (or our vendors on our behalf) may share your Personal Information ... with relevant Business Partners to facilitate a direct relationship with you.”

When asked if the current agreed-to privacy policy would allow Heartland Payment Systems to begin working with marketers without notifying parents, Petschow said they wouldn’t do that.

“We would never change our business without notifying our customers,” he said. “That would be contrary to the values by which we operate. We operate by fair, open, honest transparency.”

Broad misuse implications

Fitzgerald said data collection on children is increasingly important in the Digital Age. Not only are there identity theft or cyberbullying ramifications, but the brave new world of legal business uses, such as Facebook’s recent patent on approving or denying loans based on a person’s social network.

“All of these things are abstract, until it’s happening to you,” he said.

Fitzgerald added that even under the new stricter provisions of S.B. 187, parents likely sign a blanket agreement at the beginning of the school year allowing schools to use technology. But they have no way of knowing what they are really agreeing to.

“It’s really like a blank slate for schools to send home a single big form and then do whatever they want,” he said.

This agreement would cover applications increasingly used in the classroom, such as the interconnected suites of products available from Google, Apple or a number of less well-known educational software companies.

“Why should this be happening as a precondition of getting an education?” Fitzgerald asked. “We should actually just know. We should know who our data is being shared with.”

-- Shasta Kearns Moore

Tech chief says ‘irrelevance’ not an option in Hillsboro schools

Hillsboro School District’s Chief Technology Officer Don Wolff’s email signature says a lot about where he stands on technology and its ever-increasing interconnectedness with classroom teaching and learning.

“So, you don’t like change? You are going to like irrelevance even less!” The quote is attributed to Gen. Eric Shinseki, who served as U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2009 to 2014.

“Technology is considered an integral part of a student’s education,” Wolff said. “Your child can’t have a complete education without it.”

Hillsboro School District is in the midst of launching the first year of a new digital high school math curriculum by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s the district’s first purchase of a digital curriculum.

Students can complete their assignments on tablet computers kept in each classroom — there’s a textbook option, too. As students complete their work, data is collected to help adjust the lessons to individual students, Wolff said. Inasmuch as student data is collected, he said, the information stays anonymous to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “They can’t provide advertising or sell [student] information to outside companies.

“Because the use of technology is integrated and is intertwined so completely with a student’s educational experience and opportunities, we have moved away from specifically requiring parents to sign off on an access form,” Wolff said. Instead, the use of technology is addressed in the Standards of Student Conduct provided to student and parents annually.

However, parents are required to specifically sign off on their students’ use of Chromebooks and Google apps, Wolff said, as required by state law and by Google.

Documenting exactly which apps are being used in each classroom is nearly impossible, Wolff said, adding that he trusts teachers to use their professional judgment in what works best for their students. Getting involved in those decisions would “slow the process down. I don’t want to be that gatekeeper,” he said.

Senate Bill 187 — the Student Information Privacy Act — was signed in to law in Salem earlier this year. The bill takes effect July 1, 2016, and is intended to protect student data by further limiting what technology vendors in schools can and can’t do with student data.

As for knowing about what apps and technology your child is using in the classroom, it’s much like the old days, district officials said: Talk to your kids and their teachers.

-- Kathy Fuller