When I was a kid, I loved the movie Short Circuit. (I know: I’m both dating myself and making you question my taste in movies). I always wondered if the day would come when I would have my own walking, talking robot friend like good old Jimmy Five. We aren’t quite there yet, but today you can buy a Roomba™ to roll around cleaning your living room (and even control it with your phone), and yes that was the drone your neighbor got for Christmas flying around your back yard, so I’d say we are a lot closer today than we were in 1986. In the special education realm, we are even closer, with a host of robot products available to help special education students in their educational pursuits. Of course, their use raises the question: Are school leaders taking the necessary precautions to keep from turning our robot dream into a legal nightmare? Since I am speaking at LRP’s Special Education School Attorneys Conference this week in Austin, Texas, I thought this was a perfect time to think about the intersection between technology and special education, so here are my thoughts on robots in school.

First, some examples of how robots are being used for special education purposes. For those of you who subscribe to LRP’s Special Ed Connection service, you can read a recent article there on the topic of robots used to help students who cannot attend class face-to-face. And there are also stories of dancing robots redefining special education inclusion and the ASK NAO robot that can help students with autism develop social skills.

What are the legal concerns that should be considered with robots in the special education realm? Here are a few considerations:

  1. If a robot records the classroom, be cognizant of student records concerns under FERPA or state laws, like Illinois’s School Student Records Act. Remember, however, that with respect to other recording devices for special education students, OCR has taken the position that under Section 504, student use of a recording device cannot be conditioned on a release from other students in the classroom or the parents of those students. One would assume OCR would take the same position with a recording robot, as well.Fairfield-Suisun (CA) Unified School District (OCR San Francisco Mar. 30, 2012).
  2. Even if there is no recording, if the robot transmits a “live feed” of the classroom to a student in a remote location, who will be watching the recording and where? Although student records concerns may not be implicated because there is no “record” created, privacy considerations may still come into play, especially if there is not some level of control by the school over who is watching the feed. Deal with these issues in your written agreement with the student and his/her guardian.
  3. Carefully understand the robot maker’s security controls to prevent an outsider hacking into the recording or feed on a robot. You put together security concerns about baby monitors with live internet feeds and concerns about the safety of education technology products more generally, and you can see why security would be a top concern for me (and should be for school leaders, too) when it comes to robots in the special education realm. Make sure to review carefully, preferably with assistance of legal counsel, any agreement or terms of service with the company to make sure security is top notch.
  4. What data, if any, does the company operating a robot see or retain? By now, we’ve all heard reports of the pitfalls that come with the spread of education applications and services that store or use student data. Again, a careful review of the contract or agreement with the company should be sufficient to address these concerns.
  5. If a student is allowed to take a robot home, remember the importance of an agreement with the student and his/her guardian about caring for school property, acceptable use of the technology, and other expectations.
  6. Finally, what notice should be given to parents of other students? To teachers and staff (and their unions)? In my experience, any recording or transmission of the classroom can lead to raised antennas by parents and teachers alike. And parents may also want to know generally what technology students are using the classroom, even if there is no transmission or recording. But notification must balance the rights of privacy of other students, so as always take care.

As usual, this emerging technology offers real value in the schoolhouse. It’s exciting to see how clients and friends are innovating and using robots in powerful ways. If we all keep in mind the legal considerations that may arise with these robots, we will be in the best position to avoid conflict or concerns down the road and avoid our own legal “short circuit.”