SB 944, a law passed during the recent legislative session, has made some waves in the education community this fall. The bill does not target public education specifically, but addresses standards for preserving public information that affect teachers and other school employees.
Teacher communications regarding school business have always been public information. (Public information is not always subject to disclosure to the general public, but still must be maintained because some people may have a right of access – for example, parents generally can access their child’s records.) SB 944 clarifies that any information on a personal device that constitutes school district business is a public record.
If a school employee has public information on a private device, the information must be preserved and backed up in accordance with local policies or forwarded to an appropriate person, such as the district’s public information officer (PIO).
- A teacher emails her principal from her work computer, using her work email address, about a situation in her classroom. This information already should be retained and backed up by the district.
- A teacher creates lesson plans on her personal iPad. The teacher must retain and back up the plans or forward them to the PIO.
- A teacher exchanges texts on his personal phone with his aide about a student. The teacher must retain/back up or forward the texts to the PIO.
- While at home using a personal computer, a teacher emails a parent in response to the parent’s question. This may be automatically retained by the district if the teacher is using her work email address, but the teacher should retain/back up the message or forward it to the PIO.
Some districts have a communications system that should be used by employees for all school-related communications, including messages between employees as well as messages to students and/or parents. Especially with regard to communications between teachers and students, it is always safest to use such a system.
Between school messaging systems and district email, most information teachers deal with is probably already maintained and backed up on school district servers; the areas of concern would be work-related documents created on personal devices and text messages. There also could be potential issues with social media if it is used for school business. And remember, regardless of the subject matter, your emails at school are not private.
The bill does not mean the district can search your personal devices. It does provide that an employee must surrender any public information to the PIO or designee within 10 days of a request. Failure to do so is grounds for disciplinary action. Additionally, any willful destruction or alteration of public information can subject an employee to potential criminal penalties.
Above all, be sure to familiarize yourself with your district’s policies so that you will be handling any public communications in the manner directed by your administration. If your district has told you something that conflicts with this description of the bill, or if you have other questions, please contact the TCTA Legal Department at 888-879-8282.