time for back-to-school formsWhether school is already in session or you’ve still got a couple weeks of summer vacation left to savor, for students and parents across the U.S., there’s no denying that it’s officially back-to-school season. Between shopping for new clothing and supplies, deciding which teams and clubs to join and everything else that comes with the start of a new school year, chances are students and/or their parents are going to be filling out or signing a number of necessary forms which request all kinds of personal details and grant a variety of permissions. While this information is often necessary for legal and record-keeping purposes, it can also raise questions for parents and students as to how much is being collected and what is being done with the data in question. As child identity theft grows as a problem, it’s important for you to understand how to protect your students’ privacy when providing information on back-to-school forms.

What kind of information do schools typically require?

The type of information collected on back-to-school forms varies from state to state, as well as school to school, as each operates a little differently. Whether you are enrolling your child for the first time at a school, or if this is a return school year, will also factor in, as generally enrollment in school requires certain extra information such as proof of birth (e.g., a copy of their birth certificate or passport), proof of address (e.g., a utility bill or bank statement) and medical information (e.g., immunization records). Some schools do require that parents take their children to a doctor once per year and return a form that the doctor filled out as proof of completion.

Data typically collected by schools can include a student’s name, date of birth, social security number, medical details (such as allergies or medications taken), their photograph, parents’ names and contact information, household data (e.g., income, details about siblings) and the names and contact information for anyone authorized to pick up the child from school. Some information may be optional, and it’s possible students will be asked to fill out forms that their parents don’t ever see. For this reason, it’s important that parents and students work together to protect their privacy.

How can parents and their students protect their privacy?

Unfortunately, we live in a world where data is collected and stored in a variety of manners, from digital to old-fashioned paper, and it’s not always easy to figure out where that data may go or who might see it. Here are some tips for parents (and their children) to keep in mind when providing information to schools.

1. Know that you don’t have to provide a social security number. A little-known fact is that although social security numbers are frequently requested at doctor’s offices, schools and other places, there are plenty of cases where they are not required — and thus, you can opt out of writing that information down. Social security numbers are a cornerstone of identity in the U.S., and can be utilized by identity thieves in a myriad of ways. With schools being targeted by hackers via ransomware attacks and the potential for student information to slip through the cracks if there aren’t strong privacy policies in place, it’s best if parents and their children provide only the information that is absolutely necessary for school enrollment.

2. Always read your school’s privacy policy. The likelihood of a school not having at least one written privacy policy detailing how it collects, shares, stores and disposes of student information is slim these days. Many schools will provide this information outright when handing out information at the start of each school year, while others display it prominently on their websites. If you aren’t given a copy of the privacy policy (or a link to access it) straight away, you can request it. In addition to reading over this information yourself, depending on how old they are, it might be good to sit down with your student and go over it together. Your student should always bring any permission forms requesting consent for publishing their information or photos straight to you, so you can discuss it together and make a decision.

3. Read the fine print. If your student brings you forms to sign or documentation about a school policy, make sure that you read the entire document front to back. Much like terms of service agreements provided by websites and services, it can be all too easy to gloss over school forms, especially if you have multiple children bringing home tons of paper on a weekly basis. However, failure to do so could result in you missing something that results in a privacy issue down the road. For example, if you don’t want your child’s photograph to appear on any school publications, you’ll want to ensure that any and all forms you sign don’t authorize the school to do just that.

4. Changing schools? Request your child’s information be destroyed. If your family moves to another state or your child changes schools, while some of their records will probably move from one school to another, chances are some of those records might be retained by their previous school. Since data breaches are an all-too-common risk in today’s world, one of the best things you can do to limit the amount of data floating around out there is to request that any records retained be destroyed. You should know that the school may not be able or willing to fulfill this request, but there’s no harm in asking.

Should college students be wary as well?

Though most college students are over the age of 18, making them legal adults, it doesn’t hurt for parents to do their due diligence to ensure any forms or documents their young adult encounters are up to snuff and they know how to handle their personal information responsibly. College students are prime targets for scammers and identity thieves, as many of them are on their own for the first time and unaware of some of the dangers that lurk. It’s important for college students to be aware of what kind of information they provide, and who they provide it to. Writing down their details without finding out who will have access to them or how the form will be stored could lead to their data being used for nefarious purposes, such as smishing or phishing scams or other types of targeted fraud.

When it comes to protecting your kids’ privacy and identities, sometimes it can feel like the job is too big. Fortunately, we provide the latest tips and information you need to know in our identity theft protection blog so you can keep up.