MCPS administration building

The Missoula County Public Schools’ administration building on South Sixth Street West

In Missoula, the start of the new school year comes with increased protections for students using educational applications and software in the classroom with new legislation that adds requirements for how companies collect and use student data.  

The new Montana law, passed in May, aims to protect student data from educational software companies that may collect information including the names of students and their dates of birth, educational records, disciplinary records, test results, special education data, Social Security numbers and addresses, and even criminal and medical records.

"What happens a lot of times is teachers will sign up for this free, really cool thing that may have excellent educational work in the classroom but on the backside of that, there's student data that's been entered and if you don't read the terms of service agreement or privacy policy, you don't know exactly how that company is utilizing those data," said Rae Cooper,  Missoula County Public Schools director of technology.

Cooper worked with state Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, to develop the legislation, called the Montana Pupil Online Personal Information Protection Act. The law expands on the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which protects data for children under the age of 13, and ensures that personal information is protected for students in grades K-12. The new law ensures that student data is not used for marketing purposes and requires software providers to follow the terms in contracts made with local school districts.

The law is one of many efforts across the nation to address the growing concern over children's privacy that create consequences for companies that use data to market to children and students.

On Wednesday, Google agreed to pay a $170 million fine in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission and New York's attorney general after YouTube, which is owned by Google, illegally gathered children's data and violated the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, in addition to making changes to protect children.

Over the summer, Cooper helped develop a new policy to enact the law at Missoula County Public Schools that states the district will only do business with companies who agree to terms of their contracts.

In Missoula public schools, teachers are required to have educational applications approved by Cooper before using them in the classroom. Cooper, who previously worked as the instructional technology coordinator for a school district in Sacramento, California, reviews the policies and terms of service for each app. Cooper said negotiating contracts with software vendors was easier in California, where state laws require companies to follow certain data-sharing protocols established with districts.

After starting her job in Missoula, Cooper developed a committee to review terms of service for more than 100 applications used by teachers in the district. But when she presented companies with contracts, she had trouble getting them to agree to terms in contracts because Montana didn't have a similar law.

"Many times, they would come back and say, 'You don't have a law. We don't need to listen to you,'" Cooper said in a July 9 school board meeting where she described the new legislation.

Cooper said the new law helps make sure that students are able to access the educational resources without compromising their privacy.

"It makes my job a little bit easier to obtain these data sharing agreements once we have all these policies in place and it just protects kids," Cooper said.

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