News about a school district’s alleged misuse of its school notification system is a nagging topic about which every school communications professional needs to be…well, notified.
With the winter weather rolling in fast in many parts of the country, now’s the time to take stock of your notification system. But besides being prepared to make announcements about delays, closures and early releases, do you know the legal limits of using notification systems to spread non-emergency school info?
You need to be able to alert your audiences about what you feel is important, but you need to take the steps necessary to prevent school notification legal issues.
Campus Suite has launched its own notification system as part of our package of school web communications services we offer. And while the lawsuit was not filed against us, we are nevertheless watching it closely. Like our competitors, we are in the business of enabling schools to use this very powerful method of communicating to reach parents, students, staff and other community members who either need or want to receive important messages.
And that’s really what the lawsuit, which names a school notification provider, boils down to: there are people in every school community who need and/or want to know what’s going on at school. Companies Campus Suite offer solutions to those schools that want to responsibly engage their school community using some pretty nifty – and increasingly ubiquitous – notification/alerts software.
From crisis to crunches
Notifications are a great way to send instant messages to users who either need or want that message. You may have notifications set on your calendar to remind you of events. Your bank may alert you when there is activity in your account. Weather and news alerts, travel deals, online auctions – the list goes. There are actually many “push notifications” that people not only depend on, but look forward to and enjoy, as Amanda Zantal-Wiener outlines in this cool article.
So on one end of the spectrum you have Amber Alerts, part of the U.S. federal broadcast emergency response program. Additionally, the National Weather Service, FEMA and other authorized government agencies all require no ‘permission’ per se, to send notifications, as long as the ‘emergency alert’ setting on your phone is toggled on.
You don’t want to be challenged by any party in or outside your school community who just might complain about a less-than-urgent message.
On the other hand, there are apps like fitness trackers that remind you to get off your duff and hit your daily quota of steps, or remind you to do some crunches. These are certainly far less urgent, but nonetheless important to millions of people.
Like most of you, I depend on notifications to get me through my day. But I save them for the important stuff. I don’t want notices of clearance sales and reminders I need to log 10,000 steps. Critical, time-sensitive information like – God forbid –a crisis or emergency at school that requires a lock down: these are events no one can argue are not urgent.
Emergency vs. non-emergency purpose
At the legal heart of the matter is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA), which prevents companies and organizations from using technology to send unsolicited automated messages (robo-calls) to phones and other mobile devices. Great legislation. Who wants their phones bombarded by telemarketers? But the interpretation for parties such as schools and utility companies has been stretched and challenged.
Schools and utilities, because of the of their respective positions in our communities as civic arms with the need to sometimes communicate urgently (gas leaks, water main breaks, school lockdowns, etc.), have tested interpretation of the TCPA.
The courtroom debate over a school’s right to push alerts to it audiences dates back to February 2015, when education juggernaut Blackboard asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow any automated messages sent by a school be allowed. Blackboard argued that schools, beyond emergencies, should be permitted to send automated messages about attendance, school activities and survey messages.
I wrote about this in an earlier article on the FCC and your school communications. Emergencies are easy to define, but what’s important and what’s un-important is that gray area that unfortunately is making some schools a little skittish on this whole notification thing. Your child’s school absences, Right-to-Read Week promotion, PTA meeting reminders – valuable info for sure, but not an emergencies.
While this presents some latitude and legal gray area for interpretation for those wanting to to challenge a school’s right to communicate, it’s the right call as far as I’m concerned.
Opt-in to prevent school notification legal problems
When it comes to implementing a notification system at your school, the best practice to follow is to get permission. Simply obtaining a parent’s mobile phone number may give you the technical ability to send an automated message, but it apparently does not give you complete authority to use the notification system to send messages about whatever you want.
The FCC has ruled that schools can work around the ‘emergency’ definition by keeping the content they disseminate via alerts “…closely related to the school’s mission.” So long as a “…telephone number has been provided by that called party,” schools are in the clear to use their notification system to reach their school community.
The FCC interpretation is broad and favors schools, but you don’t want to be challenged by any party in or outside your school community who just might complain about a less-than-urgent message.
Make it easy to have people opt in. Many schools use opt-in forms to routinely for everything from bus rides to drug testing. Campus Suite integrates with the popular and easy-to-use Google forms for creating such forms. You can even make it really easy for your users by having them simply text “yes” to a designated number.
Other effective ways include adding a notifications opt-in form to the forms page on your website, or creating a dedicated web page on your school website. Use that web page to explain the privacy issues surrounding notifications. Give those who opt in clear examples of the spectrum of notifications they’ll be receiving should give permission.
The Lakota School District in Ohio has been using this notifications opt-in form which is located on its website. They even have an “Opt-In” Day which the district promotes at the start of the school year.
Also important: give those who don’t opt in an idea of the kinds of important school info beyond “emergency” content, that they’re missing out on.
Make notifications part of your school mission
While the recent legal challenges to school notification systems are being mitigated by favorable FCC rulings, they nonetheless present a potential for a privacy dispute your school doesn’t need.
As long as notifications remain “part of your school’s mission,” it appears that you’re in the clear. But you need to get out in front of the permissions. Impress upon your parents, staff, students (and anyone in your school community who you want to notify) the importance of notifications, and make it easy for them to opt in to your system.
Don’t let these legal challenges stand in the way of implementing a well-prepared notifications system at your school.
There’s an old axiom that often applies when it comes to permission, and that it’s sometimes easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. I’m convinced that in this case – when it comes to sending any notifications to your school community – be sure to get permission first.