MCPS: Remove student names from data collection

Cartoon by Eli Saletan.

Cartoon by Eli Saletan.

By Hannah Feuer

Today’s high schoolers don’t value privacy. They document their every move on social media, normalize government surveillance and give out personal information nonchalantly. But there’s one place where students still expect confidentiality: the counselor’s office.

MCPS is threatening this privacy with a countywide initiative this year to collect data about how students use the counseling office. The counselor’s office now requires, due to a MCPS mandate, students to sign in with their student ID number and the reason for their visit.

While MCPS should be applauded for collecting data to analyze trends in the use of school counselors, student names and ID numbers shouldn’t be required as part of the sign in process in order to remove confidentiality issues.

The new policy is well-intentioned; data is essential for revealing trends in student issues so that counseling departments can respond accordingly. For example, if data revealed that a disproportionate number of students come to the office due to scheduling concerns rather than mental health issues, the counseling department could take steps to make themselves more accessible to deal with scheduling matters.

Visitor data can also help demonstrate the counseling department’s importance to student life. Because MCPS may not acknowledge the vast number of students who visit counselors each day without a statistic, the data should lead to the county devoting more resources, like funding and personnel, to the counseling department, says Kari Wislar, head counselor at Whitman.

But none of these benefits require students’ names to be attached to the data. The counselor’s office is supposed to be a safe space where students feel free from judgement. Having reasons for visiting the counselor recorded in an MCPS database with names attached is intrusive and irrelevant to the initiative’s goal of helping the county respond to arising academic or health issues.

Even if the data is never used in the context of evaluating individual students, the mere premise that the county should have access to the reasons that individual students have visited the counselor is cause for concern. A student’s worries are between that student and their counselor—not the student, the counselor, and a data-crunching county official.

County officials say that including names in the data provides counselors a helpful tool to see students’ progression. But counselors should already be familiar with students who visit their office frequently. Wislar agreesshe said she hopes MCPS will remove names from the sign-in, as privacy concerns outweigh any minimal benefit of requiring names during the sign in.

Analyzing trends in data doesn’t require student identities, so students shouldn’t be required to provide them. It’s time MCPS starts respecting student confidentiality at the counselor’s office and acknowledges that mental health is a private matter.