Senate Bill 944

Sarah Mines, Editor-in-chief

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Texas Senate Bill 944 is an amendment to the Private Information Act. Texas Senator Kirk Watson (D) drafted the bill which went into effect on September 1, 2019. SB944 primarily serves to clarify existing legislation set by court precedents by establishing a process for dealing with public information housed on private devices or digital accounts. This legislature not only affects how government officials must disclose information, but also how government bodies, such as school districts, and government employees, such as teachers, are allowed to communicate.

LASA parent and lawyer David Gonzales frequently presents to LASA faculty on legal matters concerning education policy. According to Gonzales, the purpose of the bill is to ensure that citizens are given proper access to public records. The bill explicitly defines that government employees are only “temporary custodians” of business-related content, even if it is housed on their personal devices.

“It tells you that if you choose to do government business on your personal cell phone or personal email account for state business, then you’re personal email or cell phone can be subject to an open records request so that people can see what you are talking about,” Gonzales said. “In other words, we don’t care about what device you use, we care about the content of the communication.”

Gonzales usually suggests that educators refrain from using any personal device to communicate with students because it can blur the lines of authority. In government work, he said that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where state business might be housed. However, SB944 eliminates any loopholes that might prevent information from being opened to the public or used in court.

“Oftentimes, the best evidence is the evidence that happened immediately on a text message before someone takes the time to compose a well thought out email that might be self-serving,” Gonzales said. “So sometimes you want what’s called ‘excited utterances’ which is an immediate impression, and text messages give you a lot more than that. So it has evidentiary value.”

The implementation of this legislature is intended to encourage the use of government-issued devices and accounts. While this simplifies the process of collecting information for public records, Gonzales believes that it also helps maintain professionalism in the workplace.

“Whether you are in the highest layer of government or in the local government, there is a reason why we have formal methods of communication,” Gonzales said. “One of the first things the bill does is create greater transparency. It increases the professionalism of teachers because they are working in such close contact with students. In my opinion, it’s one more step that increases the professionalism of public servants such as teachers.”

Despite the recent implementation of SB944, its content is not a radical shift from pre-existing policies. Previously, the legislation was set by court precedents and not enumerated into a statute.

“Sometimes what our public officials do is they go through the court cases and they say, ‘Well, the judges already said that this is the law, but to clarify it for everyone else, we are going to write this law that makes it really, really, really clear,’” Gonzales said. “For those of us that are lawyers, it’s not a huge surprise. It’s not some massive big change. It clarifies and codifies existing case law.”

At the lowest level, this means that all business done on a teacher’s phone, personal computer and personal accounts must be stored in case it is subject to a public records request. English teacher Corey Snyder believes that the implementation of this bill will raise concerns about teachers’ right to privacy.

“I agree with the spirit of the law in that I do think it’s important that the school has a right to see school-related matters,” Snyder said. “I am afraid that in an overly cautious position, in practice, a well-intentioned law is going to have a chilling effect on our communications.”

According to Snyder, the burden of proof will fall on the teacher’s shoulders if someone requests access to business conducted on their personal devices and accounts. Snyder said that he feels as if the precautions may unfairly complicate tasks for teachers.

“The higher authorities, in their drive to protect themselves from every possible permutation of this, will go overly cautious,” Snyder said. “What I’m afraid of is some poorly-intentioned person can just say, ‘I think the teachers are saying bad things about my kid, and I want proof that they’re not, so impound all their phones. I have a right to see it.’ So if I say, ‘I don’t have anything on my phone about the kid,’ is the burden on me to prove that I don’t? Because if so, that means that I’m going to have to turn it over, and they’re going to look through my phone or my data to prove that I don’t meet this accusation.”

Snyder worries that if he does have to turn over his personal devices, his information could be mismanaged. And since information on a teacher’s device could be subject to public disclosure, larger issues of what the public has a right to access come into question.

“This is another law where it’s going to take one or two clever, badly-intentioned parents or students to realize they can play the system and just say, ‘I want all the computers,’” Snyder said. “And who’s to say that an officer’s not going to show up and say, ‘Give me your devices. All of them. All of your hard drives and your USBs and your laptop and your phone and your everything. If you’ve ever said the words ‘Austin ISD’ on it, hand it over.’ If somebody showed up and said, ‘Hand me all your devices, I’m from the district’ and I was to say, ‘No, you don’t have that right,’ I’m not sure I would be on fair legal ground.”

During professional development training, LASA teachers were cautioned against using platforms such as Slack to communicate with classes and instead encouraged to use software such as Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Outlook. Coincidentally, in a recent update approved by AISD, BLEND is now fully compatible with Slack.

Sophomore Rehan Malhotra frequently uses apps such as Remind and Slack to communicate for Debate Club. Since the implementation of SB944, all Debate Club-related communication on those apps must be logged.

“There’s a lot of student-teacher interaction in school,” Malhotra said. “I just used Remind to organize a quiz retake. I don’t feel comfortable with the logging of my conversation.”

Social Studies teacher Adam Escandell said that the issue of what is deemed school-related is more ambiguous because he communicates frequently with his brother, Jason Escandell, who is an English teacher at LASA. For him, the legislature may technically apply to conversations about their daily activities at school.

“That creates a very tricky legal scenario,” Escandell said. “Because the thing is, I just texted him a personal thing between the two of us as brothers. But if I mentioned something that happened in school, that’s part of our jobs and our jobs are part of the government, our government to democracy. And so in a democracy, the people have the right to see stuff that the government is doing. I don’t feel great about the possibility of my phone being searched, but I also understand the intent behind the law.”