Every fall, backpacks and folders are filled to the brim with forms for parents to sign as kids return to school—health forms, vaccination forms, sign-up sheets for activities—the flood of paper coming into the house can be overwhelming. But there's one form parents should take a closer look at before signing on the dotted line: the social media release.
One mom learned the hard way when she found out her child's teacher was livestreaming their class to an audience of more than 100,000 followers.
Reddit user ThatsMommy2U shared the disturbing story online. While searching for her son's teacher's email address, the mom instead found a Facebook page where the teacher promotes their classroom products. Marketing and selling created materials to other teachers via websites like Teachers Pay Teachers is a common side hustle for teachers of all stripes but this teacher apparently segued that side hustle into a fairly popular Facebook page as well. "I googled [my son's] teacher to find the email address. I came across a Facebook page with his teacher's brand, and I clicked on it," she explained. "There are A LOT of followers—over 100,000. I also noticed that the class gets livestreamed as his teacher is teaching—basically to market the products sold."
Wait, now, what?
Yep, this teacher was streaming live classroom footage over the internet to bolster sales of their products. The mom says she signed the obligatory social media disclosure form at the beginning of the year but she says "there's a difference between 'look at these honor roll students' or even a quick 'livestream from the reading carnival!' and this."
Commenters on the thread were definitely of a similar mind. "This is wrong on about 1000 levels," wrote one Redditor. "It is probably a violation of state law. It is probably a violation of district rules. It is probably a violation of her teaching contract. It is also just a colossal lapse of judgment. In order to do this, they had to set up a CAMERA in the classroom." That's a big ol' yikes right there!
"I would be FURIOUS," wrote another irate commenter. "This is not something typically covered by media releases. They're for the school, not the teacher's side-gig. In this case where there's such a major violation of trust and probably school policy I would tell other parents and go straight to the principal."
Classroom Privacy in the Digital Age
In this digital day and age, the line between sketchy and plain old illegal can sometimes be a little murky. So, is what this teacher doing illegal? Unethical? Unethical and illegal?
"Standard social media releases are often very broad," explains Braden Perry, regulatory and government investigations partner with the Kansas City-based law firm Kennyhertz Perry, LLC. They can cover rights to record children's images, voices, artwork and written work on video, photographs, digital media, or any other form of electronic or print medium, and the right to edit those recordings.
"While 'technically' covered, the releasees (the parents) likely did not think commercial endeavors with vast audiences would be at issue," he says. Because of this, the parents were unable to give informed consent when signing their media releases.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the confidentiality of student records at public schools (such as kids' grades, course work, and similar) other than directory information (kids' names, grade levels, school sports participation, and more).
"Instructors and those creating recordings must ensure any FERPA-protected material is not visible or discussed in streams created in classrooms, or obtain permission from parents to release this information," explains Perry, who once worked as a federal enforcement attorney. If the teacher inadvertently streamed any student work, such as art projects or book reports—even with a social media release—they could be in hot water.
But Is Livestreaming Classrooms Illegal?
It's difficult to tell, says Perry. "It's hard to say if any local, state, or federal violations occurred without all the information, but at best there was a breakdown of communications and a lack of informed consent." Without informing the parents that their children's classroom videos would be used as a marketing tool, this teacher potentially violated school or district privacy rules. "Many local school districts and states have their own privacy laws that may address recording minors with or without their consent," he explains.
"From a practical standpoint, this should have been more transparent. The exact nature of the activity should have been disclosed and the parents should have been informed that their instructor would be selling classroom material via online streaming and given the option to opt-out of that classroom."
Even if no laws were broken, trust was violated. It speaks to the changing nature of technology use in the classroom and the privacy concerns therein. "This should be a lesson in the evolving technology capabilities in schools," says Perry. "While many times technology is helpful to a student’s curriculum, parents should know how that technology is being used and have the ability to consent to that use."