Why You Should STOP Posting Pictures of Students online!
In today’s world it is so easy to snap a picture or video and upload it to the internet. Every phone has a camera and it feels like every public and private space in the country is bathed with Wi-fi, just asking us to upload, download, and reload.In the last few years I feel like there really has been a technology boom in the field of education and our administrators are pushing us to include more tech. in our teaching. As music teachers it just seems natural to take a video at the end of class and share it out so that others can see our final product.
Truthfully, I would love to share videos of my students singing and playing instruments. It would bring me joy to show off their awesome folk dancing skills and the ways that they work together. I am proud of my students and I want to share their accomplishments with the world! Especially here on the blog, it would be so awesome to post videos of my kids dancing or playing instruments. It’s so much easier and simpler to show you how a dance works than to try and explain it in words.
But the truth is that sharing images of our students is not only a bad idea but it can be downright dangerous. In this post I’ll work through some of the reasons that have convinced my why I can’t openly share pictures of my students and I will talk about some ways that it might be possible to share responsibly.
The Debate – What’s the big deal?
I love this quote that I found in an article by Evan Selinger of the Christian Science Monitor: “Schools that aspire to be tech-savvy shouldn’t compromise student privacy. To cope with the the unique challenges social media brings as part of an ever-evolving technological landscape, schools must ask new questions and create new policies.”If you read nothing else in this article, remember this: it’s not about you. I think that all of us have the best of intentions when it comes to sharing pictures/videos of our students. But, any time you even consider sharing the face of a student online, think about how it might affect that child.
There are a whole host of reasons why teachers should NOT share photos/videos of their students. The first reason is that it might be against the law. You should always consider whether posting a photo/video of a student would violate laws protecting student/educational records. Both the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and related state laws generally allow a parent/guardian (or student if over the age of 18) to control whether third parties outside of the school environment can see a student’s records.
You might be saying, “well I would never post student grades or data online, that’s silly!” However in some states, posting a picture of a student with a caption that gives their name counts as a student record because you are identifying that a particular individual is enrolled in your school and your class.
Now there is some debate in the legal community if it’s okay to post a picture of a student that doesn’t clearly identify them (think: whole group class shot with no named students or an action shot of a sports activity). There is also some argument on whether it’s safe to post pictures of students where the kid can be identified but where they are not specifically named.
I would argue that if a face is visible and the whole face is in the picture, then you’re in trouble. Facial recognition software is advancing by leaps and bounds every day. You might think that it’s okay to post student pictures if they’re not named… but software might be able to name them for you. What’s even scarier is that there’s new photo recognition software that can identify someone even if part of their face is obscured or covered in the photo.
Many schools send home photo release forms or require parents to sign an “opt-out” form if they do not want photos of their students distributed. If you teach at a school with this policy then you should absolutely know which students/parents have chosen to opt out and never include their students in distributed photos and videos. You should also have a clear understanding of the limitations that have been placed on what can be disclosed about individual students.One more very important question/thought I have is about how we share. There are a whole host of laws (including FERPA = the big one) about schools sharing student photos and videos on school websites and school-hosted platforms. There are very few laws (they just haven’t been written yet) about teachers using their own personal/classroom Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to share student photos. A parent may choose not to sign the “opt out” form because they feel that there would be little/no harm for their students face to be featured on the school website. That opt out form doesn’t necessarily cover your classroom Twitter/Facebook page. If it did, parents might make a different choice.
This is a big grey area and there aren’t any real hard and fast procedures about this type of sharing. However, in my mind, if you personally opened the account and it is not run or controlled by your school then the account is your account. That means that if a dispute comes to you about sharing a photo, your school likely cannot cover you with their district policy. I mean, if you take a photo of a students and share on an Instagram account (even if you call it your “school/classroom” account), it’s still just an Instagram account. It’s not like you’re sharing on a school website (controlled by your school) or a safe teacher/parent only interface. It’s out there for the whole world to see.
Here is a great website from “Education Law Insights” that talks about FERPA law and sharing student photos/records/videos.
The Risk – Why we Should STOP Sharing
Charles Leitch, a Seattle-based attorney who makes sure schools and districts create digitally safe environments that are protected from litigious risks, says, “Teachers who embrace technology are going to be the future of our schools—teachers who aren’t thinking it through will cause major problems.” He continues, “An educator’s number-one privacy concern should be over-sharing, which always leads to endangering his or her career.” (Read more from his article HERE). I would add that over-sharing can also endanger the lives and privacy of their students.It’s easy to brush this whole topic off as “not really a big deal,” but for some folks it is a REALLY big deal. I worked for a camp called Royal Family Kids’ Camp for 11 years and the experiences I had there truly changed my life. The camp was a place that served kids who had been abused and neglected and provided a week of games, snacks, learning, running, playing, and full-on kid fun. If I were to see one of my campers on the street or at the mall I wouldn’t be able to tell that they were any different from any other kid. What really blew me away was that many of those kids were from my own county, some even from my hometown. At the time, I lived in rural Nebraska in a town of about 360 people.
The point of this story is that you never know what has happened to a student or what might be affecting their lives in a big way. Many of the kids at camp were in protective placement, foster homes, or some form of rehabilitation. There were kids who were in the process of being legally taken from their parents/abusers. In some instances, children will be in a new home placement but are being actively sought out by their birth parents. If you ever see a student record at school that says, “CANNOT BE RELEASED TO FATHER/MOTHER” then it’s likely that there is a legal battle over the child. Perhaps one of the parents is abusive. You really don’t know.
All that said, if you take a photo of a student and post it online, you are waving a flag that says that the student goes to your school. There are predators out there who are looking for kids. We have all heard the stories about mothers who bundle up their child and leave in the middle of the night to try and escape domestic abuse. What if that mother has a kid at your school and doesn’t want her spouse to know where she is now. People value their privacy and sending their student to school shouldn’t violate that privacy. I don’t mean to sound crazy or dire, but I do mean to give you pause. When you share that photo do you know the implications? Who really sees that photo? Is it really harmless?I like to think of it this way. Your school probably has a policy about school visitors. At my school all visitors have to check in at the office. In my old school, visitors had to register at the office and their license had to be run through a quick background check system. We didn’t want anyone coming into the school who wouldn’t be safe for kids. In a similar way, technology can bring those visitors, any visitors into our classrooms. If I don’t want a random person to come into my classroom without warning, then I also don’t want a stranger to be able to peek into my classroom through social media.
How to Do it Right – Is there a Good Way?
After all of that, it’s hard to think about how you can share photos, videos, the work of your students in safe and thoughtful ways. Here are some ideas of how to share student work and information that is still safe for the student (and for YOU too!).First of all, for the love of all things holy, DO NOT SHARE ON FACEBOOK. Seriously. Do not share photos (with student faces) or videos on “I’m a general music teacher” or “Music Teachers” or any other Facebook group. Yes, it’s fun to share your accomplishments with other music teachers that “get it,” but big groups with thousands of members like those Facebook groups are oftentimes unregulated and open to all. I have heard several stories where teacher post something about a problem at school and the words that they thought were “safe” on a “closed” music teacher Facebook group somehow found their way back to an administrator.
Similarly, don’t share student pictures on your personal account. Facebook is a huge network and privacy settings change all the time. Even if you have your privacy setting set to “Fort Knox” mode, it is likely that if you post something it’s going to get distributed widely. You cannot predict how something will spread. Besides, even if you post content and think that it’s safe, there are ways for people to download your videos or screenshot your pictures. You cannot keep it to yourself if you post it online.
Truly, the only “safe” way to take control of student pictures/video is to not share them at all. That said, there are some steps you can take that allow you to share in ways that are more cautious and careful. First of all, don’t share a student’s face on social media. If you are going to share their picture, blur the student’s face or crop it out. If you can’t do that, don’t share the picture.Think of safe and secured places where you can share. If you are going to create a teacher blog, try and find a website where you can create a “members only” section where parents have to log into access pictures/media. Websites like Weebly, Wix, and Squarespace have this capability (though sometimes this is a “paid feature” where you have to upgrade from the free account to have this option).
There are some really great “school social network” websites where you can post pictures of your students and their work without fear that that information can be taken and spread widely. Consider using a site like “SeeSaw.” On SeeSaw unless you choose to share, no student work is visible outside of the classroom. Teachers can choose to invite family members to see the work their child has added to Seesaw or post some items more publicly (such as to a Seesaw blog).