Private eyes: Parents, schools and the trouble with photos

Private eyes: Parents, schools and the trouble with photos

Color photo of a surprised six year old girl student with a look of shock.

Recently a friend of mine fell out of favour with some of the parents at her daughter’s school. There was a moment of standing toe-to-toe in the playground, supporters evenly divided, before she was able to elicit a promise from the parent in question to “remove my child’s photos” from a recent social media post.

Let’s set the scene: we’re on a school excursion to the museum. Parent “helpers” are invited along as part of the containment strategy for the bouncing, giggling, sticky-fingered packs of eager first graders. The museum guides are guiding. The teachers are teaching. And the parents… they are taking photos of the whole event on their smart phones.

In the evening, after the kids are tucked into bed, the parents scroll through their favourite photos from the museum trip… and post the best of them (i.e., the ones involving their kids looking studious and adorable) to social media for friends, family, and other school families in their circle to see.

The next morning at school drop-off, my friend hears a chuckled comment from a parent she barely knows about a photo of her daughter circulating on social media – she with her delighted gappy-toothed grin after accidentally soaking herself at the museum’s water fountain. Say what?! You know the rest…

In this case, there wasn’t a concern about child or family safety – like in instances where details gleaned from a photo can place a child or their family at risk of domestic violence. My friend was just concerned about privacy; particularly, that the happy-snapping parent hadn’t asked her first before placing her daughter’s photo online for the wider (and unknown to her) community to see.

The photos were taken on a school excursion, during school hours, capturing school kids doing school-related things. Schools are supposed to have policies and procedures relating to when, how and with-what-restrictions photos are taken and published of children in their care. Indeed, my friend had clearly stated to the school (on the requisite “media usage consent form”) that her daughter’s photos must never be published on the school’s website or social media feeds.

But here’s the thing: when it’s not the school taking the photos, and it’s not the school’s social media feeds we are talking about, the rules (and, indeed, individual sensitivities about when it is appropriate to be photographing kids) are muddied a bit. I would argue, however, that schools have a continued role to play in 1. ensuring the privacy of their students and 2. ensuring that parents have good information at their disposal to help them make responsible decisions when dealing with photos of kids.

When it’s “on their watch”, schools must be vigilant about upholding privacy obligations around the taking and publishing of images of children:

Photos that identify (or could lead to the identification of) children are ‘personal information’ under Australian privacy law – not just the Commonwealth Privacy Act 1988 (to which private schools are bound), but also State and Territory privacy laws (which regulate the personal information handling practices of public, state-funded schools). This means that there are rules attached to how images of children are handled and that schools risk breaching student privacy if they fail to follow those rules.

Applying rules

Many schools have access to clear policy and procedural advice, as long as they know where to find it. In Victoria, for example, the Department of Education supplies policy advice around image privacy for state schools, with bodies such as Independent Schools Victoria providing similar guidance to the independent school sector. There is also directly-from-the-horse’s-mouth guidance available from the various privacy regulators.

Where parents or other community members are recruited to help during school events, the school’s attention to privacy requirements mustn’t slip. Schools should actively communicate to the P&C Association, other volunteer groups, on-site after school care providers and parents exactly what the school’s expectations are in relation to the taking, keeping/storing, using and publication of photos.

In my friend’s case, perhaps a pre-excursion reminder bulletin (or even a quiet word) to all parent “helpers” about the school’s policy for taking photos would have prevented the uncomfortable playground exchange the next day. Equally important, the same reminder bulletin would have clearly demonstrated the school’s awareness of, and commitment to, its privacy obligations when conducting on- and off-campus student events.

In today’s technology-driven world, schools could also consider implementing automated systems where photos of students are gathered and managed in one secure place and subject to the specific consents (or restrictions) parents have placed on what happens to the images of their children. Before doing this, however, the school should check the privacy credentials of the technology or platform they choose.

In my friend’s case, and in conjunction with the pre-excursion reminder bulletin about privacy… if the school had a process whereby all parent “helpers” could supply/ upload the photos they had taken at the museum directly to the school, then the school would have had the ability to manage those photos in accordance with the school’s media usage policy.

Schools should spend time educating parents and community members

No matter what the schools do at school, there is still a need to address the extent to which parents should post photos of their kids (and other people’s kids!) online. Schools have more resources at their disposal than just their own local policies and procedures; and, where appropriate, they should use them to help educate their community.

From time to time, concise and well-packaged information becomes available through Australian Government websites in relation to posting images of children and young people online – see, for example, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner or the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Similarly, Australia’s mainstream news media may publish a useful article about privacy that touches on the key messages parents ought to receive.

A well-placed regular link in the school’s newsletter may be just what’s needed to get parents talking about when it is (or isn’t) cool to post the photos of children online.

I’d like to thank my colleague – Nicole Stephensen – for her help with unpacking the privacy rules. If you would like to discuss this topic further, please feel free to connect with me here on LinkedIn.

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