Caputo, Diegnan, Jasey & Lagana Bill to Protect Student Privacy; Require Criminal Background Check for Employees with Access to Personal Student Info Approved by Assembly

Bill stems from controversy surrounding monitoring of student social media accounts during PARCC administration; monitoring is being done by subcontractor hired by testing company

(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Ralph Caputo, Patrick Diegnan, Mila Jasey and Joe Lagana to protect the privacy and personal information of New Jersey students by requiring employees of private entities under contract with the state – who have access to student information – to undergo criminal background checks was approved Thursday by the Assembly.

The bill is in response to concerns raised by some school administrators that Pearson, the world’s largest education company, is monitoring students’ social media accounts during the administration of the PARCC test. Pearson hired Caveon Test Security to monitor all public social media posts by students. Any breaches of security, meaning posts about PARCC questions online, are reported to the state. Pearson claims the practice is necessary to ensure fairness, but some find it troubling, especially with already so much concern and apprehension about the PARCC test.

“We want to prevent any potential cheating, but not at the expense of student privacy and safety,” said Caputo (D-Essex). “I understand that many of these accounts are public, but there is something troubling about adults purposely purveying pages they otherwise wouldn’t know about. If we are going to give these individuals a window into the social media lives of our students, then we should ensure that they are law-abiding citizens who will not use this access and information for nefarious purposes.”

The bill (A-4354) prohibits the state Department of Education from entering into a contract for services with a private entity, if the services involve access to student information, including the monitoring of student social media activity, unless the employees who will have access to student information undergo a criminal history records check.

Under the bill, the Commissioner of Education would apply the same requirements, procedures, and standards, and proceed in the same manner as established under the criminal history records check law for public school employees in determining whether an individual would be disqualified from having access to student information. The individual would have to pay for the cost of the background check. The department would not be permitted to enter into a contract with the private entity if the criminal history record check reveals a record of conviction for any disqualifying crime or offense.

“As if the concerns about the effectiveness of the PARCC test were not enough, parents and students must now contend with having student’s activity on social media monitored,” said Diegnan (D-Middlesex). “What’s even more concerning is this monitoring is being conducted by an independent contractor with little if any oversight from the Department of Education. Requiring background checks will help prevent giving access to the wrong people.”

“We tell young people to be careful about what they post online and who they invite into their lives via social media, but then we turn around and send strangers to monitor their accounts,” said Jasey (D-Essex/Morris). “This is not just a privacy issue; it’s a safety issue. Making criminal background checks mandatory for these employees is a minor inconvenience when you consider the potential for peril.”

“Before Facebook and Twitter, teachers and schools found ways to prevent cheating among students. Surely they can do the same in the age of social networking,” said Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic). “As a parent, I don’t feel comfortable with strangers poring over the social media activity of children. Requiring background checks for employees tasked with online monitoring of social media accounts can help prevent sensitive information from ending up in the wrong hands.”

The bill was approved 48-8-15 and now awaits further consideration by the Senate.