Salt Lake City parents complain a school’s privacy form is a gag order that could threaten kids’ safety

In the stack of papers parents at Salt Lake City’s Hawthorne Elementary sign at the start of the school year, the one labeled “Parent/Adult Volunteer Confidentiality Agreement” didn’t seem likely to set off alarm bells.

However, a few parents did raise objections, arguing the form amounted to a gag order to keep them from learning about bad behavior classmates might direct at their children. And, after a discussion between two parents and the school’s principal, the form will be rewritten to address those fears.

The “communication between parents,” said Megan Buhler, a mother of three Hawthorne students, “is one of the real strengths” of the school, and this form “is specifically designed to squash that, and I’m concerned about that.”

On the form, parents are told if they fail to keep information confidential, the result may include “being denied the opportunity to volunteer.”

Marian Broadhead, principal at Hawthorne, said Friday that the confidentiality form is a routine one. “We’ve always had it in place here,” she said, adding that college students who volunteer at the school have had to sign it for 20 years.

She added that the rule “is a protection for” parents, so they will be aware of how easily someone could divulge student information — such as ID numbers, birthdays or grades — inadvertently in emails or social media. Such data is protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

The form, she said, is “not about whether you can talk to a parent about behavior.”

However, a notice posted with the forms at a parent meeting Thursday night — and captured in a photo Buhler posted to friends on Facebook — reads, “It is most important that students, their behavior and/or grades are not discussed among school volunteers and that student privacy is respected.”

For Buhler, being able to discuss student behavior is an issue of safety. And it’s personal.

Last school year, on a field trip, a classmate repeatedly screamed at one of Buhler’s children and other students, she said. Buhler wasn’t volunteering that day, and another parent told her about the incident.

That same day, Buhler said, her child’s teacher sent an email that seemed to downplay what happened. “She mentioned that there had been a slight incident, and basically put it all on my daughter,” Buhler said. When Buhler told the teacher what the volunteer parent told her, “[the teacher] said, ‘Oh, well, that’s actually how it happened,’” Buhler said.

Buhler said the parent-to-parent network at Hawthorne is a vital safety check. “The observations that I’ve heard from my own child, from those parent volunteers, have been really helpful — in fact, in some cases, more helpful than the teachers’ observations,” she said.

Broadhead said that teachers and administrators can discuss student behavior with parents, but there are limits because of FERPA.

“Let’s say that your child was hit, a fist to the face,” Broadhead said. “I am able to let you know that I will follow all the appropriate procedures, and the discipline, and due process. But I’m not going to tell you that Johnny, who hit your kid, now is going to be whatever, whatever, whatever. … I can tell you everything that we do to protect a child, to be safe, but I also have to manage the privacy of the other [student].”

On Friday afternoon, Buhler and the other volunteer parent met with Broadhead. Buhler said the principal agreed to revise the form, to make clear that student information should be protected — and that volunteers should speak up about safety concerns.

“This isn’t people gossiping, this isn’t people sharing student data,” Buhler said. “This is a parent seeing an unsafe situation and informing a parent that her child was in danger.”

Broadhead, who this month was named the Salt Lake City School District’s Principal of the Year for 2020, said, “We wouldn’t be the school we are without our volunteers.” Last year, Hawthorne was named a National Blue Ribbon School, one of three in the state to receive this competitive honor from the U.S. Department of Education.