Classroom Technology

New Tech Aims to Help Schools Preserve Text Messages as Public Records

By Benjamin Herold — March 13, 2019 2 min read
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Like most people, school and district staff members now routinely conduct work business on mobile devices. Sometimes, that includes their own personal devices.

But in many cases, those communications are subject to state public-records statutes. And now two companies are marketing a technology to help schools capture and archive such messages in order to comply with the law.

The 14,500-student North Thurston school district in Lacey, Wash., is the first to implement the new “mobile communication compliance program” known as the SL2 app, according to a press release from the CellTrust Corporation and Smarsh.

“CellTrust and Smarsh teamed up to provide us with the SL2 app on our staff’s mobile devices, separating personal and school communication, while capturing and archiving all school-related activity to help us meet Washington state records laws,” said Derek Stewart, North Thurston’s director of technology, in a statement.

The new development in the K-12 ed-tech market reflects a growing recognition that technology has outpaced both law and policy, said Francisco Negrón, the chief legal officer at the National School Boards Association.

“This is a situation where the law is still developing, especially when it comes to the preservation of text messages,” Negrón said in an interview. “A lot of schools are just starting to come to the realization that there may be some public-records implications for the communications of their staffs.”

One big challenge is that public-records laws often vary significantly from state-to-state. Another is that even within a single state, interpretations and enforcement can vary from one government agency to the next.

Florida, for example, has one of the more comprehensive public-records laws in the nation, Negrón said. Text messages sent by public officials concerning public business have generally been found to be public records and must be preserved, he said. But at least one state attorney’s office in Florida has disagreed.

And another big challenge is newer technologies, from ephemeral-messaging services such as Snap to encrypted-messaging services such as Signal, that don’t create an accessible permanent record of the communications they convey.

Wherever they’re located, Negrón advised, district leaders should first and foremost consult with their school attorneys to understand the law.

Then they should review their own policies, to make sure they’re consistent with that law.

And the third big piece of the puzzle is training, to make sure staff are aware of what’s both required and expected of them.

“It’s not necessarily intuitive to people that their text messages may be public records,” he said. “But if the law requires that those communications be preserved, there could be value [in] technology to ensure that is happening.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.