Posting student photos on the Web

As a technology leadership guy who also happens to have a law degree, I often get asked legal questions related to school technologies. Today, at the request of Miguel, I'm going to discuss issues related to posting student photos on the Web. I'll preface this discussion with my usual caveats that 1) I am not offering legal advice, 2) I am not in an attorney-client relationship with anyone, and 3) I always recommend that folks consult their school district's attorney regarding legal issues.


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Pictures taken for school-related purposes

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Schools take pictures of students all the time - for yearbooks, at athletic events, in class, at artistic performances, etc. Often they want to post those pictures to the Internet, thus making those photos potentially available to a global audience.

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Every school district should have a policy for dealing with student photos. That policy should comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as well as any relevant state statutes (for example, Minnesota has the Government Data Practices Act).

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Schools should solicit parents' permission to post photos of their child on the Web. The permission form should clearly describe the anticipated ways in which the school will use student pictures. When posting photos, schools should try their utmost not to post accompanying names at all – the next best option probably is to post students' first names but not last names. Sometimes schools need to post students' full names – for example, an online feature of the star pitcher on the softball team or the lead actress in the school play – but these situations should be carefully thought out beforehand to minimize parental concerns about student privacy and safety. Parents should be informed of all of the various permutations so that they can make informed choices about when to grant or refuse permission for their child's photo to be used.

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Schools have the difficult obligation to somehow monitor which students' photos can be used online and which can't. For example, if a photo taken of a class activity has a student in the background whose parents refused permission, that photo likely can't be used online, even if the focus of the picture was on other students.

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Another dilemma for schools is what to do with parents who don't return the permission form. Schools basically have two options when this occurs:

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  • assume they have permission to publish unless parents turn in the form and opt out; or
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  • assume they do not have permission to publish unless parents turn in the form and opt in.
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The latter option is more protective of students and is generally the one I recommend to educators.

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Here are some example policies, forms, and other resources related to school use of student pictures:

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Pictures taken by parents or other guests

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In an interesting twist, Miguel and I recently had an exchange about an e-mail he received from a technology coordinator:

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A parent has taken photos at school events, primarily athletic events, then posted them on her own personal web site (without permission of the students or parents involved) with prices for purchasing. I know there could be a problem if the students were identified by name but they are not. There are no captions at all.\n

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Our superintendent is out of town. I'm sure someone has encountered this situation. Does anyone know if this is legal?

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Here's my take on the situation: if the pictures were taken in a public place, or in a place where parents / guests had permission to take pictures (e.g., inside school or on school grounds), I believe that parents or guests are legally entitled to take the photos and/or sell them. If a school district wanted, I think it could have a policy prohibiting anyone taking photographs within school buildings or on school grounds, but the enforcement and/or public relations issues would be difficult.

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I found some excellent resources on this issue:

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Of course a school district can always request that photographers exhibit some sensitivity to folks' concerns about privacy and safety, particularly since most of the subjects of the photos are minor children.

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Conclusion

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Obviously the issues surrounding photographs of students on the Web are numerous and complex. The challenge for schools is to balance their (and parents') desires to publicize the great things that are happening in their organizations with their responsibilities to protect children and to satisfy parental concerns about student privacy and safety. The guidelines described here also would pertain to videos of students, not just photographs.

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How does your school organization handle issues related to online publishing of student photos?

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This post is also available at the TechLearning blog.

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