Back to: Module: Communication and Collaboration
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Slide 1: Welcome to the unit on confidentiality. I’m Stanley Dudek working on behalf of the Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation at the University of Cincinnati’s Systems Development and Improvement Center.
Slide 2: In schools and school districts, confidentiality turns out to be an important feature of effective communication. What do paraprofessionals need to know about confidentiality? What does confidentiality mean for your own work? This slideshow will answer those questions.
Slide 3: “Confidentiality” is a long word based on a simple idea: keeping secrets. “To make a confidence” means to tell someone a secret you expect them to keep. The Wikipedia definition of “confidentiality” calls it “a set of rules or a promise that limits access or places restrictions on certain types of information.”
Slide 4: In educational settings such as school districts and colleges, the federal law governs how employees handle information about students. It’s known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (“FERPA” for short). FERPA requires “school officials” to keep the information in school records confidential and to share that information only with educators who are working with the student, parents, and people who obtain parental permission to see the information.
Slide 5: How do confidentiality laws apply to you? Are you a “school official”? Yes. You are a school official—there’s no doubt about it. FERPA defines paraprofessionals and school secretaries and anyone who deals with school records as a school official. Student records can be shared with school colleagues—but only on a need-to-know basis, as described in the upcoming slides.
Slide 6: First, it’s important to remember that FERPA gives parents and students over 18 actual rights with respect to school records. Parents and students over 18 can see the records and get copies of the records. And they can request changes in the records. If you receive such a request, you need to take it seriously and refer it immediately to the instructional team (or your mentor teacher). These rights cannot be denied or subverted.
Slide 7: Second, and most importantly for your work, FERPA protects the privacy of students: what’s in their records cannot be shared with anyone other than parents, the students themselves (if they are over 18), and professionals with a legitimate need to see the records. It’s essential that school officials (you included) respect and safeguard these rights.
Slide 8: But there’s more to safeguarding students’ privacy than protecting official records! A lot more, in the case of paraprofessionals.
Slide 9: Like teachers, you are doubly responsible for safeguarding students’ privacy. Why? Not only do you work with school records, but you also work directly with students. You learn a lot about students that way! And you need to treat as private what you learn about students during your direct interactions with them. Understanding the responsibility involved is a critical part of your job. It has to do with respect for students and families, and for the important work of helping students learn.
Slide 10: Confidentiality is really a question of what’s right. Talking about students or their families—talking casually about them with anyone—is always inappropriate. Even when you are discussing students with your mentor teacher or instructional team, the way you talk about them ought to be professional. It should focus on school matters or relevant background information. It should never be casual—by which we mean offhanded or gossipy.
Slide 11: Think about it. Students and their families face all kinds of difficult challenges, and school records often include sensitive information about these challenges. They include information about students’ experiences at home and in the community, medical conditions, and educational needs. These types of information about students and their families are private matters. You must work with your instructional team to keep them private as a responsibility of your job!
Slide 12: There’s one important exception to be clear about. You must report information that points to the possibility that the student is in danger. The reason is that safeguarding the student’s personal health and security is more important than safeguarding the student’s privacy. This exception is a matter of law, but check with your school and district to learn exactly what the local procedures for reporting dangers are.
Slide 13: This requirement sounds straightforward, and it often is. But sometimes there are difficult decisions in the “grey area” not specified by the law. For example, what if a student tells you she is pregnant. Should you tell her parents? Probably not. Should you tell your mentor teacher? Absolutely. Your mentor teacher will know if the state or school district requires that the student’s parents be informed. They will also know who else might need to be included in discussions about the student’s well-being, for instance, the school counselor, the school nurse, or the school psychologist.
Slide 14: Here’s another difficult case. What if the school’s PE teacher asks to see an IEP for a student who is included in the general physical education program? Once again, involving your mentor teacher is critical. The PE teacher might have a legitimate need to know, or the teacher might just be nosy. To make the distinction, your mentor teacher might consult the IEP itself to see if PE is mentioned. If so, sharing the IEP with the PE teacher is not only permitted but also important for the child’s education. Or, if the IEP does not mention PE, your mentor teacher might seek advice from the principal. In any case, just handing over the IEP to a teacher in the school is not a wise course of action.
Slide 15: The considerations discussed so far add up to one principle: talk about students only to colleagues who need to know the information to help the student learn. But what does this principle mean in everyday terms? It means that (1) outside school you should share information with no one and (2) in school you should share information only the members of the team working with the student. This team certainly includes parents. But sharing information with parents is something the mentor teacher or other teachers on the instructional team ought to do. Paraprofessionals need to refer parents’ requests for information about their children to their mentor teachers.
Slide 16: Another key point: All communication with team members should be appropriate. That is, it should focus on issues pertinent to improving and facilitating students’ education, such as academic, behavioral, social, and health-related matters. Appropriate communication like this is often called “professional.” And “professional” in this case simply means focused on helping the student learn—being on-task with your mission as an educator. Anything else is actually disrespectful of the student.
Slide 17: So, to sum up: For paraprofessionals “keeping secrets” is the law, and it’s the right thing for teachers and paraprofessionals to do. You should share observations about the student’s background, school experience, and performance only with members of the school team working with the student, namely teachers and school administrators. And it’s important to rely on your mentor teacher or other teachers on the instructional team to share relevant educational information with the student’s parents.
Slide 18: Thank you for viewing the slideshow on confidentiality. We hope you’ll tune into the slideshow in the next unit, which summarizes key takeaways from the entire module on communication and collaboration.