Big Brother Is In Our Schools, Erasing Our Children's Privacy

Our education system is crumbling on the local and federal level in ways that you may not expect-infiltrating to the very levels of personal privacy that we try to safeguard for our children.

John Dryden, a Chicago area teacher of more than 20 years, got into trouble this April after he told his students at Batvia High School that the Fifth Amendment protected them from filling out a school-sponsored survey he was asked to distribute.

The school's survey, comprised of 34 personal questions, was designed to ask students' about their "emotional well-being," including their drug and alcohol use. The one page questionnaire had their names printed on top. Parents were only given a two-paragraph summary of the survey and were not told it would contain their child's name.

Dryden says he first saw the survey only 10 minutes before his first class that day. "I looked at the questions and went, 'Oh my gosh. This is a state institution collecting data. … What will they do with that? How long is it on the record? Is it going to be on the file?" Because of Dryden's warning to students he was suspended for one day without pay.

Surveys like this are common in public schools. I've recently seen copies of a similar survey that has been used in Wisconsin schools for decades. It asks students many personal questions, which would all be considered fair game for private counseling: "How do you feel about your parents? Are you sexually active? What are your moods like?"

But it goes beyond collecting personal data, to scanning a child's irises. In Florida, three public schools scanned children's eyes for a "pilot" security program without telling their parents.

And these are just two of many examples of what is taking place across the country.

Schools are collecting personal and emotional information about students because their role has grown beyond imparting basic educational knowledge to students. They've now become social workers and proxy parents. They can't get kids to read, but maybe their luck with drug prevention will be better.

Furthermore, and more frightening, federal privacy protections for student data have been virtually erased. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education rewrote federal privacy law to say it or any agency such as a school or the Department of Labor may share whatever is in a child's file without parental knowledge or consent.

And, by the way, states are creating interoperable student databases that directly channel student files to the feds.

While the Batavia school board may feel they can be benevolently trusted to protect children who incriminate themselves, the rules encircling them do not.

Joy Pullman is a Research Fellow at The Heartland Institute ( and managing editor of School Reform News. She is also a 2013 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.