Wyoming Considers Bill to Protect Students’ Social Media, Email Accounts from Schools

Any information the student makes publicly available would still be fair game, and school employees would still be able to conduct investigations into students where their online presence is relevant – they just can’t demand the username/password.

by James Chilton, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne / February 12, 2016

(TNS) -- The state Senate on Wednesday approved on first reading a bill that aims to restrict school districts’ access to student data, particularly online social media accounts or emails.

Senate File 14 is one of several bills drawn up by the Legislature’s Digital Information Privacy Task Force. If adopted, it would prohibit school or district employees from compelling a student to provide their username and password for various digital media accounts, such as a Facebook page or an email account.

Administrators also could not require a student to log into such an account so that the contents could be read over the student’s shoulder. Nor would a school be able to punish or expel a student for refusing to provide such access.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, explained that any information the student makes publicly available would still be fair game, and school employees would still be able to conduct investigations into students where their online presence is relevant – they just can’t demand the username/password.

“You can’t ask that child or compel them to include the information, but you are entitled to ask their parents,” Rothfuss added. “If the school feels they really need the information, you can bring the parents in, and they can decide whether or not it’s a reasonable request.”

In the event the student’s data is maintained on a school-provided resource, Rothfuss said the school would still have free access to any data stored on that resource as well.

Those schools that do violate the provisions of SF 14 would be committing a misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine, or $1,000 for a subsequent offense. Rothfuss said those amounts were amended downward in the Senate Education Committee from $1,000 and $2,500, respectively.

Finally, SF 14 would require the state superintendent of public instruction and Department of Education to develop a data security plan that includes standards to remove students’ personal information from what data the department does maintain, in an effort to “anonymize” it.

Similarly, individual school districts would have to develop their own policies for protecting student data beyond the federal rules already in place.

SF 14 sparked a spirited debate on the Senate floor Wednesday, with several senators questioning how the bill would apply in situations where a student was reported to have made suicidal statements or threats of violence on their social media accounts.

“What happens if a school resource officer or administrator has information about a clear and imminent threat, and doesn’t have time to call the police, like a credible threat there’ll be a school shooting?” asked Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs. “The way I read this, that resource officer, they could not compel that student to go into their email account.”

Rothfuss said that in the case of a school employee, that would be the case. But given that school resource officers are law enforcement officials, he said the same rules likely would not apply to them in such a scenario.

If time really were a significant factor, Rothfuss said the district could simply compel the student to provide their username and password and accept the possible misdemeanor charge, which he said would probably be dropped, given the unusual circumstances.

With that, SF 14 passed the Senate on a voice vote.

©2016 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.