High School Students, Privacy, Civility, and Marketing Higher Education

Yesterday, I posted a comment on my facebook account that resulted in more response and discussion than any comment I had previously made. The issues at hand pertain to privacy, how public high schools are run, how colleges are marketed. This also may pertain to the ongoing discussion of civility.

Below I describe two scenarios which are anonomized versions of real events that happened a few days apart in two different schools. Please tell me what you think of them.

Scenario I

Ninth grade. An elective class. A faculty member from a local vocational college comes to class to give a presentation on the academic material related to that class. After the presentation, the visitor mentions that the students in the class may wish to attend this college after high school, and if so, there are funding options available. She hands out a post card with spaces to put name, address, phone number, etc. for students to fill out. The students are told they will receive more information about the college and funding opportunities if they do so. They are also told, and this is paraphrased as closely as possible from the actual event, "My boss really wants me to come back with these cards filled out. Please fill them out so I don't get in trouble." The high school teacher running the class makes no comment. The students receive the cards, write stuff on the cards, and hand them back in.

Later, one of the student confesses to a third party that she wrote silly stuff on the card. "I gave a fake name and said my address was 1234 Streety Avenue," she said.

Questions: Did the teacher do anything wrong? Did the person visiting from the vocational college do the right thing? Did the student do something wrong or disrespectful in filling out the card with joke material? What would you say to the teacher, the college rep, or the student, if you had the chance? What would you write in a letter to the administration to this school if you were a parent of one of the students in the class?

Scenario II

Freshmen in a special program in which they visit area colleges to get an idea of what is out there for them to work towards as they progress through high school are on a visit to one of the colleges, and a representative for that college hands out a form for the students to provide their name, address, phone number, etc. The teacher that accompanies the students tells them that they must fill in the forms.

All of the students write stuff on the forms and hand them in.

A little later during the visit, a representative of the college points out to the high school teacher that several of the forms were filled out with information other than the students' name, addresses, and other contact information. Some of the forms contained profane language. Some of the profanity was severe, and a subset included misogynist remarks and at least one anti-gay remark directed at one of the college reps.

The students who did this were identified and punished by not being allowed on the next one or two field trips to local colleges.

Questions: In what way is this second scenario different than the first? Was the punishment appropriate for the students who wrote the profane language? Should the teacher have acted differently during the visit? Are there policy changes that should be suggested for either the high school or the college?


More like this

In my view, the first situation is misuse of pity; the second is inappropriate arm-twisting. Nothing prevented the college reps from handing out information to the students, so sharing college information was not the goal. The first teacher was being polite and weak-willed by not reminding students that the cards were optional. The second is giving them a fantastic real-life intro to marketing tactics and privacy violations.

My college sold my information to a credit-card scam that took years to expunge from my record, so I don't believe that a college is any less likely to behave well.

On the other hand, I filled in my real email address in your box, despite not knowing how these are used. I am a good little citizen.

I'd say the first was almost as bad as the second. When a speaker comes into a class, the class expects that the speaker has the authority of the teacher. In scenario 1, the teacher should have spoken up.

In scenario two, I have to agree that there should be some sort of consequence for the students who were profane in their answers, including misogynistic or anti-gay comments. Students giving false or no answer should not be punished for protecting personal information.

Neither the teacher nor the speaker have the right to insist that students give personal information to someone outside the school.

By this time the students should be aware of the ways of the world. They should neither be protected from the college marketing departments nor punished for off color remarks.

In the first situation, the visiting faculty member should not have said what she said. But once the faculty member has said that, I don't see anything that the school teacher should do.

There's also a clear distinction between mildly silly remarks and profanity. It doesn't matter whether it was material against gays or women any more than any other group or individual. Insulting people and profanity clearly falls in a different category than a joke address. However, given the context, the level of punishment seems possibly more severe than necessary in the second case unless there were other circumstances (such as a history of bad behavior from those students).

My dearest Flynn,

I wish to aide and suffice you with the winnings of the Nigerian Lottery recentl acquiesed by my just deceased husband Rev. Vincent Dongonya. Please email me with your particulars especially those regarding your email addresses but do not send detailed banking numbers at this time.

Yours in grace,

Mary Dongonya, Widow.

Joshua: This (level of punishment) has to be assessed in relation to what is normal. Profanity on an item that is handed in can be grounds for suspension in most US public high schools. The punishment here (not being allowed on a trip) is probably less severe than average, but I say that having not seen the words themselves.

I would say that the moment that the students were told that they MUST fill out the cards then the person that told them that looses any right about the content that the students write. Any time a person is asked to do something like this there is an implied contract: if you do x, then I will do y. In order for any contract to be valid the person offered the contract HAS to be able to decline that contract: offers that you can't refuse are not really offers. So, from that perspective, I would argue that any punishment for the rude comments was unjustified (assuming that the comments did not fall into the illegal speech catagory, i.e. death threats.)

It is worth noting that, while the No Child Left Behind act regulates some surveys and requires an option to not complete them, this kind of address-gathering for college marketing is explicitly excepted. So what the teachers did was legal.

Next time I post, I may be very rich. I will share with all of you, don't worry.


Not so.

The NCLB act has no bearing on this whatsoever. IT is not legal to redistribute private information provided to a government funded agency both at the federal and for most states, the state level. Telling the students (or otherwise coercing them or tricking them) into giving private information is the same as taking that info out of a file cabinet and mailing it to the college.

I think in both cases, it was wrong to imply (passively or explicitly) that everyone needed to fill out the information. Of course, the student in the first showed more common sense than the ones in the second who decided to use the situation to engage in inappropriate behavior, but I think in both scenarios it was primarily the fault of the adults who pressured the students in the first place.

Interestingly, this reminds me of an incident that occurred back when I was a sophomore in high school. In this case, our class was asked to participate in an essay contest sponcered by an outside corporation. It was mandatory, as we were being graded on the assignments before they were to be forwarded to the contest. Part of the requirements involved placing our social security numbers on the essays. Needless to say, when my father discovered it, he told me to write the essay so my teacher could grade it, but not to enter it in the contest. The teacher threatened to fail me unless we complied and gave the information demanded. It took the school administration intervening before he backed down. To this day, I sort of wonder what kind of kick-back he was getting for entering all of his students in that competition, and I'm amazed at how many people had no qualms about sending that sort of sensitive information off to who-knows-where.

Andy, that is an interesting story. I don't think teachers need to get a kickback to behave inappropriately in this way, unless you would include as kickback some cheap and easy course material that they can use instead of preparing a lesson.

By home schooler (not verified) on 18 Oct 2009 #permalink

home schooler:

Normally, I would agree, but the issue was not that I refused to do the assignment so he could grade it (I did), but specifically that I did not want it entered in the contest given the information they were asking for. If he had no other motivations, whether the essay was actually entered in the contest is immaterial.

I'm saying that his motivation may have been nothing other than you doing what you were told to do, because he told you to do it, and you are supposed to do what he told you to do because you are a student in his classroom. There does not have to be anything rational about his decision to force you to give up your private information (rational including some kind of payoff).

By home schooler (not verified) on 18 Oct 2009 #permalink

We need more information. Are any of the high-school students pseudonymous bloggers?

Just kidding! When I was in high-school, there was absolutely zero corporate shill marketing penetration into the classroom. My understanding is that nowadays, there is massive corporate shill marketing penetration into the classroom. It is an open question to what extent a "college" should be considered a corporate entity just like Coca-Cola.

I find this corporate penetration to be grossly more ethically problematic than anything any of the students in your scenarios have done.

IT is not legal to redistribute private information provided to a government funded agency both at the federal and for most states, the state level.

Happy to hear this, if it is true. I got my info from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and I may have misinterpreted it.


From that page:
Section 1061 also requires that parents and adult students be notified about in-school surveys conducted for sales or marketing purposes, and be able to opt of participation. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232h(c)(1)(E)). However, NCLB carves out a number of exceptions to this restriction on commercial surveys. The exempted surveys, which may be administered without parental notification and without allowing opting out, involve an array of subjects:

* college or other postsecondary education recruitment, or military recruitment
* book clubs, magazines, and programs providing access to low-cost literary products
* curriculum and instructional materials used by elementary schools and secondary schools
* tests and assessments used by elementary and secondary schools to provide cognitive, evaluative, diagnostic, clinical, aptitude, or achievement information about students - and the subsequent analysis and public release of the aggregate data from it
* the sale by students of products or services to raise funds for school-related or education-related activities
* student recognition programs

Section 1061 leaves in place schools' ability, under the FERPA, to release students' "directory information" - such as addresses and phone numbers - as long as parents or adult students do not request that the information be kept private. (Opting out of such disclosure is usually performed by noting this preference on a form at the beginning of the school year.) According to a 2003 Department of Education letter, this means that schools may release to companies the directory information of students who are not opted out of release.

In both situations, the college recruiters were way out of line. These are 9th graders - 13 friggin' years old. The schools were supposed to be there to protect these children, not pimp them out.

I dislike the fact that some of them responded with inappropriate remarks, but it seems obvious to me that they were savvy enough to realize they were being taken, without being mature enough to know how to deal with it.

The whole situation smells to high heaven. (To coin a phrase.)

By Chakolate (not verified) on 18 Oct 2009 #permalink

Whatever the law says, it seems morally wrong to tell little kids they have to divulge personal information. They should have been given a choice.
In he first scenario, they were given a choice but emotionally blackmailed into complying. The teacher probably should have added something like: OK kids here are the cards, IF you think you might be interested in this college and want more info fill them out"
Given this did not happen the kid that put the false information was doing fine.
In the second case they were told they HAD to fill in the cards. Bullshit, I sympathize with the kids that filled in junk, but it should not have been profane, good to give them a mild slap on the wrist for that.

I purposely did NOT read the above replies before I added this one of mine. I will read the others in a moment.

BOTH scenarios are wrong by the college rep. Asking high school students to fill something out to hand in is just wrong.

The respective colleges can have forms to give out that are preprinted with the college address on an envelope for the students to FILL OUT AT HOME and then send in if they so choose.

In both scenarios the high school teacher should have spoken up and said that these forms should not be handed in now.

I do not think any of the students should be punished even for profanity. These students were put into an uncomfortable situation.

By NewEnglandBob (not verified) on 18 Oct 2009 #permalink

I'm pretty much with NewEnglandBob. We don't ask fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in this society to be responsible for understanding how to protect their own privacy or for deciding whether to do so. The college reps may or may not have understood this distinction, since most of the students they market to are older, but the teachers should have. The fact that the product being sold is education doesn't change that.

There are plenty of ways to make material available to the students and their parents that don't involve collecting student data. If the teachers believe the students should get information, they can send the information home with kids themselves.

In this case, I rather applaud the students who "misbehaved." It was an appropriate time and place for rebellion. They need to be taken aside and taught that slurs aren't the wisest choice for rebellion and why, but seeing as the point was (justly) to do something wrong in filling out the forms, any action should be directed toward education about the slurs (however the school's policy already handles this) rather than punishment. At least of the students.

Guilting or requiring the student to fill out marketing materials is inappropriate. Hard to know why the teacher's weren't aware of that. Perhaps the first teacher was just taken by surprise.

Silly answers are fine in my book. Slurs or obscene answers are inappropriate and should be disciplined. Missing one or two field trips seems appropriate.

Kids (and some adults) need to learn to use a minimal standard of conduct even when they don't like how they are being treated. There are many ways to handle a conflict without slurs or obscenity. It would make sense for those student to take some time to write a paper on that theme while they are missing the field trips.

I doubt that the slurs had much to do with the privacy invasion anyway. Ask yourself how these same kids would have filled out an anonymous survey on the helpfulness of the tour?

By micheleinmichigan (not verified) on 18 Oct 2009 #permalink

It is easy to assume that the kids who filled out the forms with obscenity and anti-gay remarks were being rebellious against the marketing efforts and privacy invasion. Sadly, however, that is probably not what they were doing. Likely they were just being bad. This was simply a novel venue for them to have fun and make their racist and anti-gay remarks. Linking these remarks to what could in the end be interpreted as a noble act of rebellion would not be helpful.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 19 Oct 2009 #permalink

1234 Streety Avenue?! But that's where *I* live! Well that explains all the college spam I've been getting...

Yeah, both college reps were "just doing their jobs" in trying to data-mine the schools. And in both cases the kids were in the charge of the teacher, who could have and should have stepped in -- if they were prepared ahead of time for this sort of thing. Are teachers prepared to protect kids' privacy and tell them they have the option to opt out, and that no incursion onto their privacy by any third-party representative is mandatory? I mean, if it WAS mandatory, the schools could just give the colleges their own records.

I agree with the majority of the comments suggesting that the only discipline that should be carried out is in teaching the rebellious and vulgar that vulgarity isn't appropriate, even when rebellion IS. There's so much effort at enforcing conformity in schools that when a kid rebels *appropriately*, it should be encouraged, even while discouraging *inappropriate* rebellion.

Let's take a hypothetical:
A 501c(3) organization is looking to recruit a diverse student body. They are invited to high-school classrooms and would like to be able to follow up.
Students in rich, WASP-y school districts who are given reply postcards that they are told to get parental permission and take initiative to mail the card back have a response rate of 40%.
Students in poor, minority serving school districts who are given reply postcards to take home have a response rate of 5%.
Students in either district who can return the cards right away (but are explicitly told it is voluntary) have a response rate of 90%.
Is it immoral for the recruiter to ask for the contact info right away in this case?

To my mind, what was inappropriate was the requirement (explicit in the second scenario, implicit in the first) that the information be provided. Not collecting information from high schoolers per se.
The powers that be have decreed that you can't solicit information from people under the age of 13 on the internet- this seems like a reasonable standard for allowing kids to be exposed to this kind of marketing.

The student responses in both scenarios could have been because they felt the request/requirement inappropriate, but they might just have been amusing themselves (I can't count the number of "comment cards" that I filled in with goofy information when I was a teen)
The silly answer seems fine to me- although if it was based on privacy concerns it'd be ideal to express that explicitly.
Although I don't see a huge problem with the kids in the second scenario being punished, I don't quite agree with the rationales other people have put forth here. As I see it, the cards were a communication *from* the students *to* the college representatives- the teacher has no right to judge them by the same standards that apply to assignments or school policy.
Nonetheless, this was a guest that the teacher invited. If the teacher believes these students, after being reprimanded, will be continue to be rude and reflect poorly on the school, not taking the students on field trips to other schools is understandable.
(of course, this same logic applies somewhat to the silly answer, but my personal opinion is a teacher would have to be oversensitive to worry about the impression "1234 Streety Avenue" would create)

In the Situation 1 I don't think that the representative should have made the comment about getting in trouble with the boss. I'm sure that it was intended with some humor, but it was still a bit of an arm twist.

By the time that these students are considering college, they should probably know that these things are optional and that it isn't always wise to disclose personal information. That said, they are still within the hold of a mandatory education system. It has been deemed that until the age of 18 people are not wise enough to make most decisions for themselves (as ridiculous as that may be). It would have been nice of the teacher to make it clear to the students that the forms were optional.

On the other hand, it may be a good learning experience for the students to fill out those forms, get fifty pages of junk mail a week, and learn that they might not want to give out that information later when they're on their own.

Overall, I don't think there was really an actionable problem in the first scenario.

The second scenario was an abuse of authority by the teacher. There is no reason that a group of students should be required to fill in these forms. As for he students who made the misogynist/homophobic comments, they performed terribly flawed civil disobedience. This is a teachable moment. When you are acting against an abuse of authority, do so in a way that doesn't make you look like a doofus. Still, this is America, right?

By Chris Hanson (not verified) on 19 Oct 2009 #permalink

The student in Scenario 2 should be allowed to punish the teacher. She shouldn't have given currency to the indignation and upsetness of the baby Visitor Center staff members. Their job is to *advertise* -- which, when targeted to certain elements of the market, can result getting yourself shat on (ask a telemarketer, or anyone who has ever stood at a road side wearing a restaurant mascot costume). That gay tour guide needs to just get over it.

By Hardcastle (not verified) on 19 Oct 2009 #permalink

I am appalled that the teacher even allowed the rep to pass out the cards to be filled out and returned in class. They have no way to know how that information will be used. If they were to be passed, the cards should have be taken home to the parents to be filled out, so they can ask the appropriate questions. The rep also should have asked the teacher in advance if it is okay to pass out the cards--although the rep showed poor judgment since he knew he would be passing out the cards to 16-18 year old students.In the second case--same situation, cards should not have been passed out. And I agree that once they were passed out, the have no right to complain about what is written/or not written on cards filled out through coercion.

I think that the teachers and recruiters were wrong in both cases. In high school, there's no such thing as "voluntary". The teacher in the first case should have made it very clear that in this case, filling out the forms was not mandatory, because nearly everything else in high school is mandatory. The recruiter certainly shouldn't have guilted the students into filling out the forms, or she should have at least expected the nonsense answers. I think the students who gave fake answers in that case did the right thing, since they were pressured into filling out the forms. It's encouraging to see that they are already wise enough to not give out personal information.

I remember when an army recruiter came to my gym class. It was all fun and games until he asked us to fill out forms for a raffle drawing. The forms actually said "application" right on them. I gave up my chance at a free t-shirt and I just didn't fill one out. I hid the blank form and then threw it away later. I don't know if the recruiter actually filed the forms as applications, but I think it was a little sleazy to do what he did anyway.

In the second scenario, I think it was wrong for the students to write inappropriate things, but not wrong to give false information if they felt pressure to fill out the forms. The punishment was a little severe though.