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Millions of U.S. residents apply to colleges and attend classes yearly, making educational systems the perfect target for a data breach. To protect user information, U.S. Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, in 1974. Educational institutions store social security numbers, bank accounts, and other critically sensitive data. So, when a data breach occurs, FERPA holds them accountable for not taking the necessary steps to implement cybersecurity and safeguard student information. Non-compliance with FERPA regulations could result in the loss of federal funding.
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What Is the Purpose of FERPA?
Compliance regulations aim to keep user data safe, and FERPA focuses on protecting student data. Because school systems store personally identifiable information (PII) typically used in identity theft, FERPA imposes strict penalties for educational institutions that don’t safeguard it. Schools must employ robust cybersecurity or risk losing critical financial support from the government. FERPA provides data privacy best practices for institutions and holds them accountable with hefty fines for non-compliance.
What Are the Rules, Laws, and Regulations for FERPA Compliance?
In addition to protecting student data, FERPA requires institutions to disclose student rights under data protection laws. Students should have transparency to their information and must consent to specific practices such as releasing their PII to other institutions or third parties.
Students can request their educational records at any time and should be advised of their rights annually. With proper guidance, students can then waive their right to see their records. Before releasing personal data, students must give written consent before distribution by administrators or school officials.
FERPA compliance training is vital to maintaining the privacy and security of student information within educational institutions. Interactive workshops, online courses, live seminars, and ongoing updates form a robust framework for equipping educators with the knowledge required to handle sensitive data responsibly. This information includes understanding what constitutes an educational record and recognising the rights of parents and eligible students under FERPA.
The significance of this training extends beyond just school officials—it encompasses third-party vendors who may have access to student records. Ensuring these external partners are well-informed about their obligations under FERPA compliance is essential in upholding a secure environment for student data. Through comprehensive programs that blend different learning methods, schools can foster a culture where everyone understands their role in safeguarding students’ rights to privacy.
Digital student data is a primary target for attackers. Educational organisations must follow best practices to protect data from cyber criminals. The fines and legal fees from a data breach could be costly. Here are a few elements of FERPA compliance in IT:
- Encrypt data: All data must be encrypted at rest and in transit. That means data stored on physical devices cannot be disclosed even if the device is stolen, and data transmitted over the internet is also protected.
- Test and remediate vulnerabilities: Vulnerability scans identify issues with infrastructure that stores data, such as databases and cloud storage. Review security controls and policies regularly.
- Monitoring and audit trails: Monitor all systems for suspicious activity that could indicate a data breach from outside sources or insider threats. Some applications monitor infrastructure for compliance to ensure they meet standards.
- Continuous updates and reviews: Compliance standards change, and regulatory bodies provide limited time to deploy updates to the system. Always review regulations annually to provide adequate time to deploy changes and be aware of FERPA updates.
Who Must Comply With FERPA?
Any organisation that stores student data, such as social security numbers, contact information, and financial data, must follow FERPA regulations. Internal and publicly accessible systems must implement proper access controls and cybersecurity to avoid a data breach. Colleges, universities, high schools, elementary schools, and vocational schools fall under FERPA compliance.
Non-compliance with FERPA can lead to severe penalties and cost the organisation its funding, devastating its operations.
Other repercussions for non-compliance:
- Lose any federal funding from the government.
- Prosecution under relevant laws, both state and federal.
- Investigations into employee misconduct and business practices to identify responsible parties and negligence.
- Dismissal of any employee responsible for the data breach.
- Temporary suspension of management overseeing compliance.
How to Become Compliant
The first step in compliance is a full risk assessment conducted by a professional. This risk assessment analyses infrastructure for compliance and data that could be a target for attackers. Other ways you can become compliant:
- Ensure data is encrypted: Data can be at rest or in transit. Data at rest represents information stored in a database or files stored on a drive. Sending data from a web page to the database is data in transit. Encrypt student data in transit and at rest on a storage device.
- Install a firewall: Firewalls block outside traffic from reaching sensitive data storage devices such as databases. FERPA requires firewalls, which are valuable tools for controlling network traffic.
- Use access control policies: An IT administrator on your network should set up structured access control policies to restrict access to data to authorised users only. Censor other data so that low-privileged users cannot read it. For example, when viewing a student’s social security number, a registrar administrator should only see the last four digits, not the entire number, when viewing it on an application.
- Install anti-malware software: Always install antivirus and anti-malware software on servers and user computers. These applications stop malware, such as ransomware, from being installed on the network.
- Communicate data collection and storage with students: FERPA requires that students understand the data the educational institution stores. Also, the institution must notify students if they plan to disclose their data to a third party.
FERPA Training Requirements
FERPA training requirements ensure everyone handling student records understands their responsibilities and the legal obligations tied to student privacy. The aim is straightforward: protect students’ educational records from unauthorised disclosure and misuse. These requirements mandate that school officials—including teachers, administrators, counsellors, and support staff—receive thorough instruction on FERPA’s regulations. Key elements include:
- Understanding educational records: Identifying what information qualifies as an educational record under FERPA.
- Rights of access: Knowing who has the right to access this data without consent and under what circumstances.
- Consent protocols: Learning when obtaining written consent is necessary before releasing a student’s personal information.
- Directory information: Differentiating between directory information—which can be disclosed without prior consent—and other more sensitive data.
Training must also cover how to properly handle requests for information from third parties while ensuring compliance with all aspects of FERPA. It should clarify procedures for responding both affirmatively (when disclosure is allowed) and negatively (when it must be denied).
Furthermore, institutions must have protocols in place for emergencies where health or safety issues might necessitate sharing certain details—an aspect often covered during training sessions.
Regarding frequency, initial training upon hiring is crucial, but periodic refreshers are also vital. These ongoing updates keep school personnel abreast of any changes in laws or policies affecting how they manage student records.
Third-party vendors who access educational records through service agreements require tailored training that emphasises their role within the boundaries set by FERPA standards. This training helps prevent breaches stemming from ignorance or oversight outside traditional school environments.
From recognising protected documents to complex decision-making scenarios, those bound by FERPA’s reach should have detailed knowledge about every facet of these regulations to maintain trustworthiness regarding students’ private information.