In This Issue

Federal Education Department Proposes Revisions to School Privacy Law
The U.S. Department of Education proposed 30 pages of revisions in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), partly in response to the massacre at Virginia Tech last year. The proposed revisions, published in the March 24 Federal Register, were largely aimed at removing restrictions that might inhibit educators from disclosing information in cases of emergency or threat without the consent of the student. The main changes in FERPA rules include: • Educators who disclose information to protect the health and safety of a student or the public would have new legal protections. • The new rules take into account new technologies and would interpret the law to cover students who attend classes through distance learning or the Internet. • School districts would make sure that employees would have access only to records they needed. • Districts would need written contracts with researchers to whom educational records were disclosed without parental consent, specifying and agreeing to the purposes of the research. • In compliance with the U.S. Patriot Act, educational institutions must disclose education records to the Attorney General in response to an appropriate court order. • College campus officials can release information about a student who is a registered sex offender. According to a federal study, Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy (June 13, 2007), and a state report, The Virginia Tech Review Panel Report (August 2007), the slaying at Virginia Tech might have been avoided if school officials did not feel they were hampered by FERPA. According to news reports, several professors in the English department were aware that student Seung Hui Cho was troubled and might have posed a threat. They could have shared that information with his parents, Education Week reported, without violating the law, but apparently felt restrained from doing that. On April 16, 2007, he killed 33 people, including himself. The federal study cited fear of violating privacy laws as a barrier to sharing information among institutional staff and the state study expressed similar concerns, suggesting that school officials need stronger liability protections. The U.S. Department of Education says the changes in the rules provide that protection. The proposed regulations state: "The Secretary requires that, considering the totality of the circumstances, there be an articulable and significant threat to the health or safety of a student or other individuals, and that the disclosure [of the information] be to any person whose knowledge of the information is necessary to protect against the threat. On the other hand, the Secretary has determined that greater flexibility and deference should be afforded to administrators so they can bring appropriate resources to bear on a circumstance that threatens the health and safety of individuals." The regulations take into consideration changes in technologies and other developments since the law was first passed 34 years ago. For instance, while the law protects the privacy of students in school, the new provisions expand privacy coverage to students who attend classes by videoconference. The provisions also permit school districts to share student data with contractors as long as the data are pertinent to the contractors' functions. Many districts are out-sourcing administrative work. Because of the danger of identity theft, social security numbers may not be shared. Student identification numbers could be shared as long as that would not permit others to access records without a password or other protection. In order to help protect against record fraud, districts also would be permitted to share records with the agencies that originally created them. Educators who thought a record was falsified could send the document back to the office that supposedly created it to see if it was bona fide. Researchers would still be able to access de-identified student information without parental consent but would be required to sign a contract stating that the records could only be used for the purposes of the study. The proposed regulations may be accessed at http://www2.ed.gov/legislation/FedRegister/finrule/2008-4/120908a.html. The state study on the Virginia Tech massacre may be found at http://www.vtreviewpanel.org/report/index.html. The federal study is at http://www.hhs.gov/vtreport.html.
Multitasking and the New Media: How is this Affecting Our Children?
The vast majority of American children and adolescents has and use multiple electronic devices, often at the same time. Cell phones, iPods, video games, instant messaging, social networks, the Internet, and e-mail have joined television, once the focus of considerable concern. The Future of Children, a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and The Brookings Institution, has published a report on children and the electronic media, bringing together the current research examining how exposure to different media forms is linked to child well being. Children, particularly adolescents, have almost constant access to media--often without adult supervision--and spend more time using media than any single activity except sleeping, the editors noted. Much of the media is so new the effects have yet to be evenly researched, raising questions not only about the effect these technologies are having, but on the methodologies researchers employ to measure them, the editors noted. Key findings include: • Content matters. It is the content, not the form of the media, which determines whether the effect is positive or negative. Content designed correctly can enhance learning. Even computer games, which can develop visual spatial skills, can be beneficial. • Multitasking--doing several things at once--is at an all-time high, creating problems for researchers in trying to measure media usage. Children often are engaged in several tasks simultaneously and experimental protocols have a hard time measuring that. • Time spent watching television remains constant; children are engaged in other media--sometimes two and three simultaneously--while they watch the TV set. • Media content designed to promote pro-social behavior does increase social capacities such as altruism, cooperation, and tolerance of others, while news programs and some entertainment can instill fear and anxiety. • Most on-line conversations are with friends, not strangers. While children sometimes chat with people they do not know, the effects are not necessarily negative. • Media can enhance healthful behaviors, such as discouraging smoking, using alcohol or drugs, promoting physical activity and safe sex. • Risky behaviors such as aggression and smoking are strongly linked to media consumption, while others such as obesity and sexual behaviors have not yet been strongly linked. Children who have a heavy-media diet of violence are more likely to perceive the world as a dangerous place and see aggression as more acceptable than children who do not. • Marketing and advertising are effective and some of the products marketed are not safe or healthful. • Government regulations will not limit the ill effects of the media because of constitutional restraints. Infants and toddlers are less influenced than older children by the new media, researchers found, because they need direct exposure and interaction with real people to learn, but by the age of three the media becomes a more effective influence, although attention peaks at one to two hours. Electronic teaching in schools is not necessarily more effective than traditional methods, research has shown. Additional research is needed to know whether early sexual initiation is linked to media use, researchers said. The report made several suggestions: Parents should concentrate on what the children are doing with the media rather than which media they are using or how much time they are spending on them, the editors wrote. Policy makers have a difficult task balancing constitutional limitations with the desire to provide parents with effective tools to help them regulate media content within their homes, they wrote. The government should sponsor research on educational programs that explore innovative technologies to educate and teach children how to best use the media. Educators should implement research-based programs to make better use of media in education, which includes training the teachers on the new media, the report said. The thrust of controlling the effects of the new media rests with families. Parents can put pressures on industry to provide better content, a more meaningful ratings system, cut back on inappropriate advertising, and produce better screening technologies. "The key," the editors said, "is to shift the focus from the medium to the message." Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue, editor of The Future of Children, edited the report, which includes nine studies. The full report is online at http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/18_01_FullJournal.pdf.

Credits: Joel Shurkin, Editor, jshurkin@gmail.com

Credits: Virginia Robinson, Editor, robinsoneditor@attglobal.net
Health & Health Care in Schools is a monthly journal published in html and PDF versions by The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools. Support for Health & Health Care in Schools is provided by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.