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Northam signs legislation amending student privacy law

Northam signs legislation amending student privacy law

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Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill this week amending a law barring schools from disclosing student directory information.

Last year, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, sponsored a bill that said no school could disclose student contact information unless students or their parents explicitly say otherwise.

However, when the law went into effect, schools began reporting they were unable to communicate internally for educational purposes.

“After the bill was passed last year, as schools began to implement it, there was a couple little glitches folks found, so they brought that to me,” Wilt said Friday.

Schools reported that if professors were, for example, emailing multiple students in one email, they would run afoul of the law by sharing contact information with other students.

Professors were blank carbon-copying students on emails and struggling to organize educational exercises that required a group of students to communicate with one another.

So Wilt introduced HB 2449 this year that would create an exception allowing schools to share that contact information internally or for other educational purposes.

Students would have to opt out of such disclosures.

James Madison University spokeswoman Caitlyn Read said Thursday the new language “alleviates the concerns that faculty raised about the internal sharing of students’ contact information, and also mitigates the unintended consequences of the bill related to working with university contractors and vendors.”

“My intent from the very beginning was not to place a hardship on the schools,” Wilt said. “The real goal was to prevent outside people, whoever they may be — political groups — completely unrelated to the school, being able to access students’ most intimate information for their own purposes.”

Wilt’s bill last year was one of a few filed by legislators in response to a liberal group, NextGen Virginia, that used the state Freedom of Information Act to obtain student cellphone numbers from Virginia colleges and universities and then texted students about registering to vote in the November 2017 election.

NextGen America is a political action committee started by billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent millions of dollars in Virginia on elections and helping mobilize young voters for Democrats. Republicans called NextGen’s texting strategy an unseemly practice that violated students’ privacy and inappropriately used public information.

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