At school confidentiality turns out to be an important feature of effective communication. “Confidentiality” is a long word based on a simple idea: keeping secrets.
In formal speech “to make a confidence” means to tell someone a secret you expect him or her to keep. But we all know that telling secrets is risky business. Can you really count on someone to keep your secret? It’s a judgment call, always. Have you always been able to keep a secret?
Well, when you were employed as a paraprofessional, your colleagues judged you as being able to keep secrets relevant to the students you work with! That’s right: you must keep these secrets. Why? It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also the law.
In terms of the law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act—FERPA—requires “school officials” to keep information in school records secret (“confidential”). Does that really include you? Yes: paraprofessionals and school secretaries and anyone else who deals with school records are school officials. You are a school official—there’s no doubt about it.
FERPA also gives parents and students over 18 actual rights with respect to school records. They can ask to see the records, and they can request changes in the records. But most importantly, FERPA protects the privacy of students: what’s in their records cannot be shared with anyone else. It’s essential that school officials (you included) respect and safeguard these rights. It’s an important part of your job. Information can be shared with school colleagues—but only on a need-to-know basis, as described next.
The law applies to school records, but the principle of confidentiality goes further. It’s a question of what’s right. Talking about students or their families—talking casually about them with anyone—is always inappropriate. Students with disabilities or other learning difficulties face significant challenges, and information about those challenges and the conditions associated with them are private matters. You must keep them private!
There’s one important exception to be clear about. You must report information that suggests 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.
Apart from that exception, you simply cannot talk about students to anyone who does not need to know information to help the student learn. In practical terms that means no one outside of the school staff and, in school, only the members of the team working with the student. FERPA does allow the school to share information in certain strictly limited cases without permission, but you are unlikely to be involved in those cases: that sort of disclosure is typically made by school administrators.
Appropriate communication among colleagues at the school who work with the student is not casual, but should instead be focused conversation about the student and issues pertinent to improving and facilitating his or her education: academic, behavioral, social, and health-related. That sort of communication is often called “professional” in education-talk. But “professional” 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.
So for paraprofessionals, “keeping secrets” is the law, and it’s the right thing to do. You should share observations about the student’s experience only with members of the school team working with the student.