As students head back to school, the R.I. ACLU said today that a survey of school district practices across the state shows that many districts are not fully protecting the privacy rights of students in interactions with military recruiters. In a letter sent to school district superintendents across the state, the Rhode Island ACLU urged administrators to improve their procedures to inform parents and students about their right to control the release of student information to the military.

A provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires school districts to provide student names, addresses and phone numbers on request to various branches of the U.S. military for recruiting purposes. However, that same law also requires that schools give both parents and students the opportunity to not have that information disclosed without written parental consent.  

Because implementation of this law has been the subject of much nationwide discussion recently, the Affiliate surveyed each district in the state to assess how compliance with this provision of NCLB was being handled. The survey revealed that opt-out procedures vary greatly among school districts, and that in some communities, including Providence, opt-out policies have still not been formulated. Most striking was the ACLU’s finding that one of the law’s most crucial features has been inadequately conveyed by almost every district in the state.  The law allows not just parents, but also high school students themselves – including those under 18 years old – to prevent the automatic release of directory information to the military by requiring that his or her parent consent to that release. While many schools provide opt-out forms for parents to sign, none that the Affiliate reviewed had similar forms for use by high school students under 18 years of age.

The ACLU’s letter to superintendents urged them to “correct this oversight, thereby benefiting the many students with privacy concerns or reservations about military service who may now be receiving unwanted recruitment offers because their parents never saw, or neglected to return, a refusal form.”  Enclosed with the ACLU’s letter was an individualized assessment of the school district’s particular procedures, with specific suggestions for improvement. The ACLU also offered a model opt-out form that school districts could use.

The survey also uncovered a number of other concerns, including:

  • a number of school districts do not use opt-out forms, but instead simply notify parents about their opt-out rights in newsletters or student handbooks, which are likely to be overlooked;

  • some school districts use all-purpose opt-out forms, instead of ones limited to the military; thus, parents are not given a choice of, for example, allowing directory information to be provided to institutions of higher education, but not the military;

  • some districts provided very short deadlines for parents to respond to opt-out requests.

R.I. ACLU executive director Steven Brown said he was hopeful that the ACLU’s packet of information would assist superintendents “in developing a more effective notification program – something that is especially important when communication with parents of teenagers is involved.”

A copy of the ACLU’s letter and model opt-out form can be viewed here.

Click here to see a chart summarizing school district policies.