News

Bill would keep schools out of students’ social media accounts

By Trevor Brown, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle
September 30th, 2015

If passed, bill would make Wyoming one of the first states in the country to protect students’ social media

social-mediaA proposed Wyoming law would make it illegal for school districts to demand access to students’ Facebook, Snapchat or other social media accounts.

The Legislature’s Task Force on Digital Information Privacy voted Thursday to advance the bill. It would make it a misdemeanor for school officials to request or demand a user name or password to a non-school issued account.

This would apply to apps and programs used to store or send photos, videos, emails, text messages and other “digital information.”

The bill also would block school officials from forcing students to let them view the account unless they get permission from their parents.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, co-chairs the task force that voted to recommend the bill during its meeting in Laramie.

He said schools still can work with law enforcement agencies to get warrants to access the accounts if they believe there is a crime or potential crime.

School officials also are free to view and act on any online information that is public.

But Rothfuss said the proposal is designed to protect private information of students and others.

“It’s not just Billy’s privacy that you are exposing,” he said. “But it’s all the people who contacted Billy through the social media that you just opened the door to without their consent.”

The proposal is similar to a bill that was considered, but rejected, during this year’s session. But that applied to employer-employee relationships.

Rothfuss said that bill failed because there were concerns about companies needing to request employees’ accounts to avoid corporate espionage and the theft of intellectual property.

But he said these issues don’t apply with the education proposal.

If Wyoming decides to pass the bill, it will join Maryland in becoming among the first states to put in place these types of privacy protections for K-12 students.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the proposal is necessary because more private information is being stored online.

He added that accessing suspicious information on a student’s personal computer or tablet is different than a school official, for example, taking away a pornographic magazine that a student brought to school.

“You can grab the magazine and there really aren’t any other consequences,” Case said. “But when you grab someone’s tablet and go through (it), it’s like going through the kid’s house.”

But some school representatives said this could limit their ability to investigate or discipline students.

Gordon Knopp is director of technology for Laramie County School District 1. He said the measure could cause teachers to be less willing to report possible crimes if they see something on students’ phones or other devices.

“(They might say), ‘I am not able to do anything, so I’m going to be hesitant. Now there is a child maybe being a victim to something, but I can’t report it,'” he said.

Ken Decaria, government relations director for the Wyoming Education Association, said he supports the concept behind the proposal. But added that he is worried about “unintended consequences.”

He added the penalties, which would be as high as $1,000 for a first violation and $2,000 for each subsequent violation, could be too strong. With other laws, such as those that require teachers to report signs of abuse, he said there could be confusion about what should be done.

“Sometimes people make decisions with only good intentions at heart and they get caught up in these situations,” he said.

The proposal now goes before the Joint Education Interim Committee. That panel will decide whether to sponsor it for the 2016 session that begins in February.

Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, also a co-chairwoman of the task force, said she supports the plan. But she added it’s good that another committee will look at it.

“The more eyes, the better,” she said. “Because there are a lot of nuisances that matter.”

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