The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment: Privacy Rights in Public Education

April 11, 2022
Privacy Rights in Public Education

In an increasingly digital school environment, it is becoming easier for schools to access private and confidential information of pupils who spend the majority of their waking hours in their care or at their screens. A digital atmosphere leads to a more connective learning environment, making it rather effortless for schools to collect information from students. Where is the demarcation between information that may be permissibly collected, and that which invades the student’s privacy rights?

The PPRA Requires Parental Notification and Consent Before Collecting Certain Categories of Student Information

The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) draws that demarcation clearly. The PPRA, encoded at 20 U.S.C. § 1232h and 34 CFR Part 98, was enacted in 1978, and applies to student surveys, instructional materials or evaluations funded by the federal government that deal with highly sensitive and personal issues. Pursuant to the PPRA, schools may not require, as part of any applicable programming, students to submit to a survey, analysis, or evaluation revealing information about:

  1. Political affiliations or beliefs of the student or the student’s parent
  2. Mental or psychological problems of the student or the student’s family
  3. Sex behavior or attitudes
  4. Illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, or demeaning behavior
  5. Critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships
  6. Legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers
  7. Religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs of the student or student’s parent
  8. Income (other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program).

Schools may not require disclosure of any of the above categories of information by a minor student without the prior written consent of the parent, or of that student if an emancipated minor.

Parents Should Remain Aware of Students’ and Families’ Privacy Interests

Occasionally, when schools violate the PPRA and impermissibly require disclosure of information in these categories, the relevant questions can be interposed with innocuous questions or requirements. For example, the above categories may be, inadvertently or otherwise, included in career interest surveys, community health screenings, threat assessment screenings, climate surveys, and other seemingly routine data collection.

Parents should remain aware of the protected status of certain categories of their student’s information and ensure that their student’s and family’s privacy rights remain protected. Even purportedly “anonymous” surveys may run afoul of the PPRA if student information may be gleaned from the totality of the information collected.

What To Do if Your Rights or Your Child’s Rights Have Been Violated

Violations of the PPRA can be handled through submission to a local education agency for resolution, or complaints may be formally submitted to the U.S. Department of Education Student Privacy Policy Office (SPPO), which investigates instances of the law’s violation. Formal PPRA complaints must be filed within 180 days of the alleged violation or within 180 days of the date on which such violation was discovered or should have been discovered through reasonable diligence. A response from the SPPO should confirm receipt of the complaint within three business days. Consequences for violations of this law can be significant for schools and may involve termination or withholding of certain federal funds. See 34 C.F.R. § 78.21, 34 C.F.R. 78.21, 200.94(b) or 298.45(b). The SPPO may also force the school to cease and desist the violative behavior.

Regardless of your decision to pursue a potential violation of the PPRA or other privacy laws, a skilled education attorney can help you navigate this complex process. To discuss further, please contact Susan Stone (; 216.736.7220) or Kristina Supler (; 216.736.7217).