What you should know about the FOIP Act

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) aims to strike a balance between the public's right to know and the individual's right to privacy, as those rights relate to information held by public bodies in Alberta.

This law, proclaimed October 1, 1995, affects all provincial government departments, agencies, boards and commissions. The act was applied to school boards and charter schools on September 1, 1998, and to health care bodies on October 1, 1998. Post-secondary educational institutions and local governments will be covered by the act by October 1999.

In a school setting, the privacy of students and parents is protected by rules that schools must follow in the collection, use, protection and disclosure of personal information.

Alberta schools collect and use personal information for authorized programs and activities that are a normal part of school life. These uses are a vital part of a healthy and functioning school environment, and participation of all students is important. The FOIP Act will not dramatically change normal school activities; it will not prevent parents from participating in their children's education. It will allow parents and students broader rights of access to information and it will obligate schools to protect privacy.

The act should be applied in a common sense manner and should not negatively affect school life.

Featured here are questions that have arisen. The responses are provided to clarify matters for school staff, parents and students.

Photographs

1. Who can photograph students at public events at schools?

  • Classrooms are not public places. Schools control who has access to school property and to students.
  • Schools can decide to invite spectators, including parents or media, to certain school events. This is a school policy issue rather than a FOIP issue. Once parents or other members of the public are invited (other than as volunteers within the school), the event becomes a public event, and anyone in attendance is allowed to take photographs without first obtaining consent.

2. Who can photograph students involved in performing arts or competitive teams?

  • Students involved in performing arts or competitive teams perform or compete in public venues and it is reasonable to expect that photographs may be taken by spectators and by schools. This is a disclosure made for educational purposes.

3. Can schools and school boards photograph students in classrooms?

  • School staff may take photographs of students for use within the school.
  • Schools do not need to get parental consent for these photographs. This is part of the general notice that certain personal information is collected for the purpose of providing educational programs.

4. Can the media photograph students in classrooms?

  • Schools need to obtain parental consent before allowing those outside the school, including parents, visitors, or media, to take photographs of students at non-public events. Consent is required only if individual students are identifiable in the pictures.
  • For example, if the newspaper wants to interview and photograph the Grade 6 student who had the highest marks, the school must get parental consent first. If the newspaper wants to photograph the school's new computer lab, it could photograph the students from the back, in a way that did not identify individuals, without requiring consent.
  • The media are expected to behave responsibly and cooperate with schools that have invited them to participate in school events.
  • Schools should be proactive by communicating with the local media and agreeing upon guidelines in advance of inviting media into the schools.

5. Can schools photograph students for student identification cards?

  • Schools can photograph students for student identification cards without asking for consent from parents. These identification cards are in the custody of students, so no personal information is disclosed.

6. How should schools go about producing yearbooks?

  • Yearbooks are normally available to anyone who wants to purchase a copy and they may be placed in public libraries. As such, they are public documents.
  • Schools must decide whether their yearbooks are part of an educational program. If yes, then photographs and other personal information may be included without requiring consent. If no, consent must be obtained before using personal information.
  • Photographs taken at public events, as in Questions 1 and 2 above, or in classrooms as in Question 3, can be included without consent.
  • Consent should be obtained to include individual or group photographs which do not fit into the above categories.
  • Personal information to be included in the yearbook, for example, the student's educational or career plans, should be collected directly from the individual the information is about.

7. Can schools and school boards continue to display pictures of graduating students and historical photographs within the schools and administrative offices?

  • The pictures were created for educational purposes and the continued display of them is allowed.

Personal information of parents and students

8. Who can have access to student and parent names and contact information?

  • This information can be disclosed on a need-to-know basis, if the information is necessary for the performance of the duties of a school employee or volunteer. For example, a teacher may need this information for each of the students in his/her class, to contact parents to discuss the student's progress. As well, the school guidance counsellor may need the information for similar purposes.
  • Some schools have parent volunteers who call parents to verify absences; in such cases, the volunteer can have access to the information they need to carry out their task.
  • Schools can use information for the purpose for which it was collected. The examples above illustrate this and are therefore acceptable.

9. Can home addresses of graduating students be provided to MLAs?

  • Schools collect the home addresses of students to use in providing educational programs to students. Congratulatory messages are not part of the educational program, nor are they a consistent use of the addresses, and thus schools cannot disclose home addresses for this purposes.
  • Schools may obtain consent to release names and addresses of students. Alternatively, elected officials can offer congratulations by including a letter in a grad kit, through the local media, by attending school ceremonies, and so on.

Personal information of staff and school council members

10. Can schools release the names of teachers and other staff, for example, in a school newsletter?

  • Staff names and other personal information are used for a number of purposes. For example, names of staff may be used for payroll purposes, to assign parking and to advise parents about which teacher teaches their child.
  • Schools should notify staff of how personal information will be used. If staff names are then released for these uses, or for consistent ones, this is allowed under the FOIP Act.
  • It is not permissible to release names for unrelated purposes (for example, to marketers who wish to target all teachers in a particular school) without consent.
  • Schools, with the input of staff, may develop a policy on when staff information will be released when a formal FOIP request has not been made.

11. Can schools release the names of school council members, for example, in a school newsletter?

  • Like school staff, school council members should be notified of why their personal information (for example, name, phone number) is being collected, how it will be used, and to whom it will be disclosed. Information may then be released accordingly.
  • Schools should discuss with council members how their personal information will be used, for example, whether home phone numbers will be released, and to whom.
  • As an elected member of the council, there is an expectation that the individual's name and contact information will be available to anyone.

Students' names

12. Can schools put student names in hallways, for example above coat hooks, on lockers or on classroom doors?

Schools often label coat hooks and lockers for younger students. Schools can continue to do so as this assists the students and teachers in the schools.

13. Can students' names be disclosed as part of an e-mail exchange program between schools?

If this is part of an educational program of the school, then disclosing the students' names would be permissible.

If it involves putting names on a web page, parental consent is required.

14. Can swimming pool staff be given the names of students attending school swim classes?

  • The release of information relates to the operation of a school program.
  • Recipients of the lists should be told that the names may only be used for the purpose of running the swim class.

15. Can students put their names on assignments, tests or artwork?

  • There is no barrier in the FOIP Act to prevent students from putting their names on their work.

16. Can schools provide students with lists of classmates for the purpose of sending St. Valentine's Day cards?

  • Teaches can provide students with the information they need to send St. Valentine's Day cards to classmates when this is a program of the school.

Students' marks and achievements

17. Can teachers write comments on student assignments or tests as well as the student's grade?

  • There is no barrier in the FOIP Act to prevent teachers from commenting on students' work.

18. Can students' grades and detentions be posted in the hallways or classroom?

  • Posting students' grades or detentions may be a breach of privacy. The educational benefits need to be taken into consideration. In a Grade 1 class, a poster with student names and stickers for each book read by a student is entirely appropriate. By contrast, posting Math 30 exam results with the students' names in the hallway has no educational benefit, and so would be an unauthorized disclosure of personal information.

19. Can schools celebrate student educational achievements in the school or school bulletin, such as honor rolls, scholarships, or awards?

  • If this is part of an educational program of the school, then disclosing the students' names would be permissible.

20. Can parents find out how their children's marks compare to other students in the class?

  • Class averages may be provided. If required, parents may receive a list of other students' marks that excludes the name of other students.

21. Can parents receive information on the performance of a school?

  • Yes. This is not a privacy issue, as the performance of individual students would not be released.

22. Can students mark each other's tests?

  • Personal information of students is disclosed when students mark each other's tests.
  • This disclosure is permitted when it is done for an educational purpose. Group learning activities may be used in the classroom and students can learn from critiquing the work of other students.
  • Schools should consider the merits of this practice in the classroom and use it at the discretion of teachers.
  • If this method of marking is convenient, but not educational, it should not be used.

23. Can students read their essays aloud in class?

  • If the school decides that this activity is part of an educational program, there is no barrier to this in the FOIP Act.

Former students

24. Can class lists of former students be released to plan special events like class reunions?

  • Section 38(1)(z) provides discretion to release information already available to the public. If lists of students and graduates have been previously released and are available in public sources such as in a library, yearbooks or newspaper articles, the same information can be disclosed. It would be practical to refer the inquirer to the public information source rather than trying to ensure that whatever information is compiled does not include new information.
  • If the information is not available from a public source, school boards must look at Section 38 for authority to release the information. Section 38 does not allow this disclosure, so requests must be refused.
  • The Select Special Committee of the Legislative Assembly that is reviewing the FOIP Act has recommended that the act be amended to allow class lists to be disclosed.

Volunteers

25. Does the role of volunteers in the school need to change?

  • Schools can continue to welcome volunteers into the schools, but should inform them of the need to protect student privacy.
  • The Alberta School Boards Association recommends that volunteers who work closely with students sign a confidentiality undertaking under which volunteers agree to protect personal information that they may learn of in the course of fulfilling their duties. This is a way for school boards to demonstrate that they are taking steps to protect privacy.

26. Can parent volunteers take part in the marking of student tests and quizzes?

  • Schools should require volunteers to protect the privacy of the personal information they have access to in the course of performing their volunteer duties. This does not prevent parents from volunteering at the school.

Other questions

27. Why is consent required to display students' work in schools or in public settings?

  • The federal Copyright Act requires that permission from the copyright owner, in this case the student, be obtained from the student's parent to use or reproduce the school work (artwork, essays, poems) for other purposes. For example, schools may want to display student artwork at community events, on a school's Web pages, or submit school work to Alberta Education.
  • Copyright consent forms can be obtained as part of the student registration process. This is not generally a FOIP Act issue or privacy issue, unless the artwork contains personal information.

28. How is the personal information of international or out-of-province students attending school in Alberta protected?

  • The FOIP Act applies to the personal information of international and out-of-province students in exactly the same way as it applies to other students.

For more information, contact Dan Garvey at Barnett House in Edmonton at 447-9415 or 1-800-232-7208 from elsewhere in Alberta.